Examples of the Confusion and Difficulty with Navigating the Current Information Environment

There are two main positions regarding the lack of an informed citizenry in a democratic society. One emphasizes the failure of individual citizens–that is, they are apathetic or lazy, failing to think critically and put in the time to inform one’s self. The other emphasizes the effects of new technologies and media–specifically, the deluge of information and the eroding authority and influence of traditional curators of information. I use the word “emphasizes” intentionally, signifying that both aspects are important, but the difference in position is a matter of emphasizing one aspect over the other.

I fall into the latter group. Specifically, I believe that not only an informed citizenry, but a functioning public square, which is critical for a democratic society, depends on addressing some of the negative effects of new technology. My sense is that new technologies that change nature and flow of information requires societies to adjust, creating tools and processes to help individuals and institutions manage and make information meaningful and useful, versus the opposite. Knowledgeable, critical thinkers are important component of this process, but even if every citizen had these attributes, the problem would still be significant. In this thread, I hope to give some specific examples, primarily from social media, that illustrate this.

3 thoughts on “Examples of the Confusion and Difficulty with Navigating the Current Information Environment

  1. Here’s a tweet I recently saw (which inspired this thread):

    The problem here–and a perpetual challenge, especially on social media–is knowing who one should trust–who I should pay attention to. For me, and I would assume for many people, the relevant knowledge and experience are what I look toward. The opinions of individuals with this knowledge–and I would say, seem well-respected by institutions and people that I respect–carry more weight for me.

    But how do I know who these people are? In the tweet above, there is Nyhan, the people he claim are experts, and the people he claim are faux experts. Based on his tweet, we can assume that Michael Bazaco is an “expert” and Eric Feigl-Ding is a “faux expert.”

    Bazaco’s twitter page has the following: “Infectious Disease #Epidemiologist focused on zoonotics, #Hokie and @PittPubHealth grad, adjunct @UMDPublicHealth Tweets-mine, #epitwitter, #IDtwitter he/him”

    while Feigl-Ding’s is “Epidemiologist & Health Economist. Senior Fellow @FAScientists 16 yrs public health @Harvard. FAS COVID Taskforce Steering Committee. COVID policy and updates

    Now, one shouldn’t blindly trust what individuals write about themselves, but just going on this, who would you say is more of an authority? (I should add that Bazaco doesn’t have a blue check, with Feigl-Ding does.)

    For me, my trust in Nyhan is the primary reason I would lean towards Bazaco.

    But does Nyhan deserve this confidence? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m confident in him based on the fact that a) he’s an academic, and b) I’ve read his posts for a long time, and I find his posts to measured, reasonable, and non-partisan. But is my evaluation of him really reliable? While I have some degree of confidence in my evaluation, in reality, this is not really firm ground.

    OK, I just noticed that Nyhan also shows an excerpt of an article that questions Feigl-Ding’s expertise. According to the article nutrition seems to be his area of expertise. Now, that doesn’t mean his opinions are valid. The thing is, in order to know this, one would have to follow his posts regularly–and one would have to have enough knowledge to be evaluate his credibility on COVID-19. Without these two things, you can be the smartest person, and it would be hard to know whether to trust him or not.

    In my view, this type of problem is very common on twitter. I don’t think one can overcome this problem by high-powered critical thinking. Instead, I think people have to rely on short-cuts or heuristics to know who to trust. These short-cuts can be sensible, but they’re rather crude ways to evaluate information. Rigor is the trade-off for efficiency.

    An example of this type of trade-off involves identifying trustworthy sources and when one believes the issue isn’t critical or one doesn’t have time to personally examine the issue, one will take these sources at face value. Intellectual laziness? In a way, yes. But again, with a glut of information, and a finite resources, one has to rely on methods that exchange rigor with efficiency.

    This approach would be fairly effectively if we can build institutions and processes that provide reliable information, in a way that people can make sense of. Additionally, the information space and public square can be functional if we have sources of information that a politically diverse group trusts.

  2. I take this to mean Newsweek is no longer a reliable news source. This caught me off guard, as I didn’t realize this, assuming Nyhan is correct, and I would haven’t assumed it was.

  3. I almost posted the tweet below. I listened to the video, and initially I assumed the Scarbough’s summary was accurate. That is, I didn’t come to his conclusion, just based on the video clip shown. In the comments, someone mentioned a WaPo article that clarified and basically debunked Scarborough’s assumption. Here’s Scarborough’s tweet:

    Maybe I’m not fully understanding the article, but basically Coney Barrett was being descriptive, not prescriptive. One could easily assume the former, especially if one was a liberal or strongly opposed Trump.

    (I think Ambassador seemed to make the same mistake I did, as well.)

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