It’s a classic vicious cycle. Post-internet, misinformation and ideas previously doomed to be only fringe-worthy spread far and fast. The faster misinformation travels, the less scrutiny it’s getting along its way. And the more of it that’s accepted by more people, the more the channels for unreliably-sourced information grow.
Until we get better at handling this, we may be an “information society”, but we won’t be a knowledgeable or wise one.
Although it’s quick and easy to get ourselves into this mess, there is no quick and easy way out of it. To counter this vicious circle, we need to build virtuous spirals of trust that can give trustworthy information more weight. Trust is powerful and it’s emotional. It’s not just a simple conscious decision, rationally arrived at.
Misinformation is widely socially distributed in digital networks now. Trust is widely dispersed too. So anyone reading this blog post has a role in making the situation better or worse to some degree. We are all part of the swarm intelligence or hive mind that people draw on to form their personal dynamic knowledge base in what Elisa Sobo and her colleagues call “Pinterest thinking”:
[S]elf-curated assemblages of ideas drawn from multiple sources using diverse criteria, held together only by connections envisioned by the individual curator…The idealized expert-generated, one-way, authoritative reign of science is over.
Sobo writes that just as the spread of the printing press led to the concept of having a nationality, the interactive internet has led to profound changes. We are integrated into the media now. We broadcast information and create it, too – social media posts, comments on websites, blogs.
It has been a bit worrying for science so far: even among those with science degrees surveyed in 2015, around 40% believed genetically-modified foods are unsafe to eat and didn’t believe human activity is causing serious global warming. But then, we haven’t had long to learn how to handle this social development. The iPhone only arrived in 2007, after all.
I wrote more about some aspects of this a while ago here. This post lists 3 ways I think we each have to get more serious, if we are concerned about science as a critical basis for knowledge in society.
1. Be serious about your spheres of influence – even small ones.
What we share and what we say to others could have an impact that’s bigger than we realize. We hear a lot about bubbles that we’re living in. But everyone isn’t living in only one bubble. Small circles of people are connected to other circles by members in common and those who are just plain good at connecting groups. Those people form bridges and can be conduits of ideas and information.
I find thinking of this in social capital terms useful – 2 types of “glue” between people. Bonding capital builds up inside a social group; bridging capital builds between them.
When we’re communicating, we could be strengthening bridging capital even when we’re in our bubbles, because of the “bridgers” among us. But we could be weakening it, too. There are all sorts of ways of firing up people who already agree with us. It’s very bonding. But how we do it is one of the things that will affect who trusts us – and how much effort is required by a “bridger” to translate or explain to others.
2. Slow down, but don’t only leave it to others.
If you react too quickly on social media or in a public setting, you risk contributing to the problem. Don’t think about sharing information as having little responsibility: every raindrop contributes to a flood. And the reliability of what you share affects how trustworthy you are.
Slowing down is a key step in protecting yourself from your own biases. (More on that in that earlier post of mine.)
But although we shouldn’t be too quick on the trigger, it doesn’t mean that inaction is a safe course. There’s a risk to that, too. Opinion formation is social. When it comes to controversies, if there is a spiral of silence in a group because people want to avoid conflict, that can become a problem, too, giving people a skewed impression [PDF].
3. Correct yourself.
Once you’ve circulated misinformation, you can’t just withdraw the effect it might have had. It’s a bit like the problem of a newspaper booming an error in a headline on its front page, and then having a little correction weeks later, isn’t it? Still, we need to try to face up to correct our own personal records, and to guard against being defensive when we’re wrong.
Now that we are part of the media, in effect, we share in its responsibilities and limits. How well a media outlet deals with its mistakes can affect how much it’s trusted – and the gap between consumers’ and media insiders’ perception of how scrupulously they correct themselves may be a factor in distrust of journalists [PDF].
If you are a scientist, then contributing to the accuracy of the scientific record is extremely critical to the trustworthiness of science.
Science obviously cannot correct itself: it requires scientists, editors, and research integrity entities to do that. And if anything, many if not most, both avoid correcting the record and don’t make anywhere near enough effort to ensure they don’t perpetuate error (see for example here and [PDF]).
We’re talking a lot these days about science’s “reproducibility problems”. I think that’s a euphemism for unreliable science and unreliable publications. Because most people don’t have the skills or time to detect unreliable data before sharing it, the onus is on the scientific community to make meaningful progress in improving the quality and integrity of research.
Truth is only one of the values that matter. The consequences of our societal vulnerability to misinformation can be severe and long-lasting, and far more so for some than others. Roopika Risam wrote:
In the Trump era, the contribution I have to make won’t come from my research, as social justice-oriented as it is, but from my work preparing teachers for their careers. In the face of an immense feeling of hopelessness, I can see the possibility of exponential influence – on my students, on their students, ad infinitum. It’s both a comfort to see a way forward and a humbling responsibility. We must get this right. The future depends on it.
That’s profoundly important. Many years ago, when I was in a community leadership role and national political events took a disastrous turn, my thoughts crystallized around a metaphor I found valuable: the bushfire. There’s a crisis and immediate needs and extreme vulnerabilities.
But there’s also work to do in ensuring the conditions for quick and robust regeneration after the crisis has passed. We have to re-double our efforts to protect and nurture the people and institutions we need in the future. It’s on each of us.
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1958)
The discussion in this post continued into another post after comments.
Are we going to be hearing this word endlessly now – or will we get post, post-truth?
Use different criteria, of course, and post-truth might not be your word of the year. Part of the reason it’s Oxford Dictionaries’ choice is that so many people looked it up, not sure what it even means.
Go by Google searches, on the other hand, and there were more people hitting the keyboard looking for a fact check than wondering about post-truth anything. The same thing happened last time the U.S. had a presidential election.
Post-fact and post-truth: I think they could both end up bookends on a shelf around postmodern. The phenomenon described is real, but the jargon isn’t that useful – and I agree with Alexios Mantzarlis: getting over-enthusiastic with branding things “post-truth” will itself mislead.
The term “virtuous spiral of trust” was coined by philosopher Onora O’Neill in her BBC Reith Lectures.
* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.