Despite having grown up in the 90s, it’s still strange to me that people were ever able to live day-to-day without constant internet access. Before the age of broadband and mobile internet, people only had information about what they saw on the evening news, read in newspapers or books, or heard through word of mouth. The most recent information we could get about the world was at least one day old, and almost all of it came from mass, broadcast media. This old media holds two key distinctions from the media we enjoy today, distinctions that appear to have had profound implications for our ability to hold public dialogue and communicate.
The first distinction is that old media was passive, while new media is active, meaning that we actively seek it out rather than simply consume it. With each click on Facebook or each new account we follow on Twitter, we are choosing the information we take in. An immediate consequence of this fact is that all of our news is personalized. What I see is inevitably different from what you see. Although this seems rather obvious, this past U.S. election cycle has made clear that we were far from being aware of the informational bubbles in which we were living (myself included), as well as the degree of distortion that has seeped into our media.
The main issue with this is that our physiology and brains are adapted to physically consistent environments, since for 99.999% of our history, we have perceived the same things as our local neighbors, and the things that we perceived tended to be logically consistent from day to day. Of course, errors and mistakes do happen, which is why we tend to believe something much more readily if it’s corroborated from multiple sources (i.e. visually and aurally) or if we hear it from multiple people.
However, this error correction only works if these sources are independent and there is no selection bias. On a social network or with personalized news, we have the exact opposite situation. We have filtered out any news we don’t want to see, and we have selected for the sources that give us exactly what we want. So there is in fact no error correction, even though our brains still believe there is. In the face of overwhelming (self-selected) evidence of our constructed understanding of reality, any contrary piece of evidence that we encounter is a threat to our worldview, as it creates cognitive dissonance. It is therefore much easier to dismiss conflicting evidence or to rationalize it to fit with our constructed worldview, rather than to question everything and start again.
The second distinction is that new media is pervasive. We are awash in the ideas of others from the moment we wake until we go to bed, simultaneously absorbing and creating our collective information environment. When I write an article or a blog post, I am thinking about all the ideas of others I’ve read, all the science articles and news pieces that are even remotely relevant for my topic. This isn’t a willful process; my brain automatically triggers memories and thoughts based on what I’ve experienced. A lot of times I don’t know the source for certain ideas, or even that they aren’t mine.
Technology has given all of us the tools to communicate with the world at large, individually. Wikipedia is largest online repository of information, managed almost completely on volunteer basis. Musical artists can sell music directly to their fans. Academics disseminate their work via blogs instead of traditional publication routes, releasing code online rather than sell them through companies. Major authors in the last decade jump-started their career by self-publishing.
Years ago, I had optimistically thought that this would lead to the development of group intelligence and smart coordination (see this old essay), but as this past year has made clear, it has instead led to echo chambers and group delusions. The prevalence of social media and personalized web feeds has enabled us to filter our information intake to suit our whims. We’re no longer tethered to facts or reality; we can pick and choose our daily diet of news - indeed, we’re encouraged to do so, if only it’ll keep us clicking.
Information has become consumable, pieces of entertainment specifically produced for us, because our views are the product being sold. Combined with our inherently social natures, which lends validity to any information shared with us by friends, it becomes next to impossible to discern information as entertainment from information that is useful for making decisions. In addition, nowadays we can live for quite a long time in our constructed realities, taking comfort in our customized, bespoke digital environments. The difference between fact and fantasy only becomes apparent when we are finally forced to look up from our screens and confront a physically consistent, causal universe that does not care what we want to see or hear or believe.
Worryingly, these two factors that characterize new media mean that our perception of reality is incredibly vulnerable to manipulation using digital means. Twitter bots, fake news, internet troll armies and the like all serve to produce the illusion of reality, given an outsized portion of public attention to those with the most incentive to spread misinformation.
The internet has become one of the most powerful forces in human culture, fundamentally changing the ways in which we communicate and get information. It has great potential to democratize information and enable group coordination on a scale never before possible. It could even lead to a new form of group consciousness (arguments could be made that this already exists). But unless we remain vigilant of what is happening and work to put in safeguards, it can and will be used to divide and confuse us. Our shared narrative has become fractured and isolated from reality, and, in the absence of feedback and corrections, our collective delusions will grow unimpeded and threaten to consume us.
I think one of the most important things we can do is place a premium on investigative journalism and corroboration from independent sources, in direct analogy to how the brain distinguishes signal from noise. Not all news sites are of equal quality, but on social media sites it can be impossible to tell. Having a way to distinguish news articles that have been corroborated via other independent sources (akin to peer review in science) from those that haven’t been would be invaluable. A startup that could find a way to quantify accuracy and monetize that over sensationalism and clickbait would certainly have my business.