30 December 2016

The Challenge of Information Democracy

Folio Corporation LogoIn the 1990s I was a co-founder at Folio Corporation, an electronic publishing software company. Correlating with the growth of the internet we produced tools that let average individuals publish their content and search for the information they needed in vast pools. Such tools are common today but it was cutting edge at the time.

"Information Democracy" was the term we used to describe the concept. In previous generations, a select few were able to publish their words to a sizable audience. Likewise, only business leaders and rulers of countries could afford the research staff necessary to stay well-informed. We produced a video featuring James Earl Jones and held conferences anticipating the how greater access to media would spread liberty, increase productivity, and support a more moral society.

We weren't alone in our optimism. In Life After Television George Gilder wrote, "Television is not vulgar because people are vulgar; it is vulgar because people are similar in their prurient interests and sharply differentiated in their civilized concerns." Ever the optimist, Gilder anticipated that greater diversity of media channels would result in a gradual elevation of quality and subject matter.

We have, indeed, achieved a world where any organization can publish to the whole world, where individual citizens can create TV channels on YouTube, and where average researchers have better resources than national leaders had a generation ago. Unfortunately, unfettered access to media hasn't resulted in the utopia many of us expected. Today's challenge is distinguishing reliable information from deliberate deceit and the whole spectrum between.

Unreliable Information

The recent presidential election brought the issue of fake news to the the media's attention. It will probably take years to sort the origin and impact. One source seems to be entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers making money with fake news sites and Google AdSense. The Washington Post claims it was a coordinated Russian effort to destabilize American democracy.

The Pizzagate episode offers a warning sign of how fake information can provoke violent response. In terms of death toll, Andrew Wakefield's fradulent MMR Vaccine paper was worse. Despite millions of dollars invested in follow-on studies and publicity campaigns, the anti-vaccine movement has contributed to thousands of illnesses and numerous childhood deaths.

In recent decades, most newspapers and magazines have reduced or eliminated their fact-checking departments. Fact-checking of this sort is a cost-center and with declining revenues due to internet media, publishers have sought to reduce costs. The decline in ante hoc (before publication) fact checking has been matched by a growth in post hoc efforts like FactCheck, and PolitiFact as well as fact-checking pages at major news publications. Post hoc fact checking builds a revenue center out of the effort by sensationalizing politician's and other publication's mistakes. The unfortunate result is that post hoc fact checking is selective, biased, and missed or ignored by those who prefer to believe an inaccurate story.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named "Post-Truth" as it's word of the year for 2016. Their definition is "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." The OED editors acknowledge that "post-truth" conditions aren't new; only that use of the term increased rapidly in 2016 year in the context of the U.S. Presidential Election and the U.K. Brexit vote.

I prefer the term "Confirmation Bias", defined as "The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. In extreme cases, conspiracy theorists tend to reject any evidence contrary to their opinion as part of the conspiracy while considering all evidence in support of their opinion as true and factual.

Information Democracy

2 by 2 matrix. Horizontal dimension is Access to Publish Media with left being Exclusive and right being Open. Vertical dimension is Trust in Media with top being High and bottom being Low. Upper-left quadrant labeled Information Hegemony. Upper-right, Information Democracy. Lower-Left, Propaganda. Lower-Right, Information Anarchy.

It's time to resort to that old standby - the 2x2 matrix. In the latter half of the 20th century, prior to the advent of the internet and world-wide web, U.S. society was in a state of high media trust but all publishing flowed through a relatively small set of media outlets. Opinion polls identified Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America." This state of high trust and exclusive access is the upper-left quadrant, "Information Hegemony."

We optimists of the 1990s expected free access to media to provoke a shift to Information Democracy. Likewise, we anticipated that totalitarian states would be forced from state-controlled media to an information democracy model.

We didn't understand the importance of trust systems in that shift. As access was generalized, and economic forces pushed media to a more sensationalist orientation, trust declined and we have ended up with Information Anarchy. It's hard to say whether this is superior to the more trustworthy but also restricted hegemony that preceded our day. But this state isn't unprecedented. In 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a greater variety of newspapers and magazines each with strong biases and little distinction between fiction and fact. Journalistic objectivity as a value didn't become prominent until the mid-20th Century.

Tools for Discerning Truth

At present, the main tool most citizens use to judge media is whether a story matches their existing world view and opinions. Confirmation bias turns out to be a pretty good tool so long as one's world view is somewhat close to truth. And, of course, everyone thinks that their biases are the "true" ones. The problem is that when one relies exclusively on confirmation bias, they don't have a tool for correcting their biases - for getting closer to what's really true.

Trust is our second-best tool for judging content. It's also an excellent tool for correcting ones own biases. That's why the decline of trust, and the concurrent decline of trustworthiness, is such a problem today. The sensationalism of most media outlets concentrates on confirmation bias as a way to gain audience. Careful readers have to seek trustworthy journalists rather than organizations - at least until the trend turns.

Critical thinking isn't so much a tool as a discipline. It's something that our schools can and should teach and it's incorporated into good quality language curricula. As students are taught critical thinking they are taught to recognize and use good-quality arguments, to measure the credibility of facts based on origins and citations, and to compare and contrast writings from multiple authors.

Taking Personal Responsibility

I'm afraid that profit motive will prevent the media industry from solving this problem for us. Rather, we need to take individual responsibility for recognizing and tuning our own biases. We must bring the language of critical thinking into our vocabulary; asking about sources, seeking contrasting points of view, looking for supporting evidence, checking the logic of arguments, and discounting emotional appeals.

Clay Johnson wrote in The Information Diet, "The pattern here is simple: seek to get information directly from the sources, and when the information requires you to act, interact directly with those sources. An over-reliance on third party sources for information and action reduces your ability to know the truth about what's happening, and dilutes your ability to cause change." (Page 140)

The Information Age has given us unprecedented access to the original sources. We can take advantage of that. Institutions will follow the people, not the other way around.

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