Thoughts on the Current Information Landscape

I think the information landscape has been going through massive changes–changes that I sense vaguel, but don’t really fully understand. I plan to use this space to think out loud, as a way to gain a better understanding.

Older info landscape:

  • Less info overload;
  • Institutions relatively strong and viewed as authoritative by large numbers of people with varying political views;
  • Standards and effective consequences for not adhering to standards, at least for those who biggest platforms (e.g. newspapers, magazines, TV, etc.);
  • In discourse between average citizens, social sanctioning for violating standards and norms effective and efficient.

Within this information environment, being good critical thinkers, getting info from a variety of news sources would be a reasonable and practical approach for individuals. Within this information environment, providing facts and letting individuals make their own decisions would be a reasonable approach by the press and other institutions. That is, the press need not do as much analysis and processing of the information; they can put the burden on individuals to do this.

New info landscape

  • info glut;
  • Weak or inadequate institutions and tools for individuals to sort and analyze the information.
  • Information sources either don’t have, accept, and/or enforce standards for news and information that is critical for citizens in a democracy. Yet, the authority of these sources of information can be equal to more established news outlets, at least for some people;
  • In online political discourse, individual participants as well as host sites have great difficulty administering consequences to individuals and groups that break important ground rules for civil, thoughtful discourse.

In new info environment, individuals are overwhelmed. Institutions like the press are weakened, in terms of resources and authority. The older approach used by the press and other institutions don’t work in new info environment. Tools and processes have slightly different objectives and have to function differently. We may need completely new institutions and novel means to address the problem. (Problem: See Neil Postman.)

Dependence on the Elite

I’ve been thinking a lot about the knowledge an individual has of current events and politics. My sense is that we can group an individual’s understanding into two categories:

1. Understanding based on direct knowledge by the individual or through scrutiny, analysis, and vetting by the individual;
2. Understanding based on trusted sources. Here, the individual doesn’t really have a good understanding, but relies on trusted sources, like New York Times, political party leaders, or well-respected academics, etc. Additionally, this type of understanding is often based on various cues and short-cuts. For example, if the major newspapers all have similar headlines for a relatively long period of time, an individual would conclude that information in the headlines is a) true, and b) important. The information one receives in this way is superficial, and sometimes unreliable; and one probably shouldn’t have a lot of confidence in this type of understanding.

In my view, the political understanding of every individual is a combination of both types. Those who are the most knowledgeable and wise depend less on #2, but even their understanding is based on this second type, at least to some degree, in some areas. For those who aren’t well-informed about politics and don’t follow the news closely–a very large group of people–I think they rely heavily on the second approach. This is the group I really worry about, and here are few reasons why:

1. We’re losing sources of information that are trusted by large numbers of both the left and right. The result is confusion for those who don’t follow the news closely. If we don’t have very many sources of information that the left and right both trust, and the sources of information are highly partisan–i.e., the left says they’ve got the truth and the right are lying–and vice-versa–then this will confuse these people who aren’t well-informed and don’t follow the news closely. They won’t know who to believe and what’s true.

2. Trump, some prominent Republicans, and conservative pundits are pushing the idea that the mainstream press is “fake news”–that they’re dishonest and make things up. Trump seems to be moving to the point where he wants people to believe that he speaks the truth, while the press lies. Roughly a third of the nation will believe him, the other third will not, while the remaining third may be confused. That’s a dangerous situation in my view.

Next: Thoughts on Solving this Problem.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Current Information Landscape

  1. This is the Moment All of Trumps’s Anti-Media Rhetoric Has Been Working Towards is a WaPo op-ed by Margaret Sullivan. Essentially, Sullivan and others have been arguing that Trump has been attacking the media–and the truth–undermining both so that when the press reveals information that poses an existential threat to the Trump presidency many Americans will either be confused or won’t believe it. The accusation is audacious and if it were made to a politician several years ago, I would have scoffed. But I’m not scoffing now. I do think this is an actual possibility.

    Why is this happening? Besides Trump’s brazen authoritarian behavior*, I think the failure on the part of the individuals, institutions, and any other mechanism/process that would communicate Trump’s attempts, its significance, and danger is a big reason for this. Part of a successful process involves a) effectively sifting through the information glut, and b) having the authority that all sides recognize.

    What’s overvalued in this scenario is the critical thinking of individuals. For one thing, there are large groups of people who don’t possess this, and/or don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to do sort through the information. These vast majority of people need help, or else they just won’t get this information. And the great critical thinkers who also happen to be super knowledgeable also need help as well.

    By the way, Republican leaders and prominent conservative pundits could also serve at helpers. If they joined Democrats and liberal pundits to renounce Trump’s actions, this would serve as the type of filter I’m talking about.

    Edit

    * I actually think having authoritarian actors like Trump and perhaps even more sophisticated ones like Russia and others that will emulate them, is a big deal. They pollute and manipulate the information space, and the entities that manage and keep this space functional for a democracy (like the press) don’t know how to respond.

    One related problem: Trump and Putin brazenly lie and make up stuff, and there’s no consequence; there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to administer consequences. If Republicans and Democrats united and vociferously pushed back against this–or if Americans united and pushed back hard against this–that would be a way. But partisanship and maybe corruption (possibly linked to a country like Russia) prevent Republican leaders from doing this. As for the people pushing back, a third of the public is probably confused or unaware of what’s going on and another third support the authoritarians. Additionally, when a significant part of the public square occurs online, providing consequences to those who lie brazenly can be difficult as well.

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