Tag Archives: information

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.



There’s no dearth of discussion about the effect of social media on culture and politics. Facebook and Twitter, especially, are credited (if that’s the word) with facilitating everything from the Arab Spring to the surprise victory of Glenda Ritz here in Indiana. Political observers tell us that sophisticated use of social media was a major factor in Obama’s successful GOTV effort, and that bungled use of that same media hampered that of the Romney campaign.

During a discussion about the Media and Policy class we’ve been team teaching this semester, John Mutz wondered aloud whether these forms of communication might be destabilizing government, making it much more difficult to engage in the sort of negotiation and deliberation that democratic theory prizes.  I think he’s right, and I think this is an unfortunate and under-appreciated consequence of our current, frenetic media environment.

It’s not just the speed with which information, innuendo, rumor and half-backed conspiracy theories circle the globe. It’s the partial nature of that information.

The goal of democratic societies is informed participation. Not just voting, not just agitating for this or that change, but thoughtful engagement in self-government. Today’s communication technologies facilitate immediate engagement: Sign the petition to XYZ, telling them to vote for ABC! Join the protest against so-and-so! Don’t let ‘them’ change this program–it’s all that protects grandmas and kittens! We are given tools with which to send a message, but all too often, the message is not based upon a full explanation of the issues involved.

I know there have been several instances where I’ve gotten such a “call to action” that initially seemed appropriate to me, but upon further research into the policies involved, turned out to be promoting a result that was neither practical nor possible. (The federal budget really isn’t like our household budgets–it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes, well-intentioned programs that are meant to help one population or another have negative unintended consequences that really do need to be addressed. It’s usually more complicated than that email blast would suggest.)

Despite their considerable merits, Facebook and Twitter and all the other methods of rapid communication at our disposal too often get us to fire before we aim.

It’s important to be engaged. It’s important to communicate quickly with our elected representatives when we think they are about to act in ways that will damage important institutions, or harm vulnerable constituencies. Social media allows involved citizens to mobilize others, and to have a much louder and more effective voice than was previously possible. The downside is that the folks most likely to be involved are the partisans, both left and right, who tend to be more ideological than informed.

It’s so easy to click that link and sign your name. Who has time to read up on the arguments, pro and con?

As Captain Picard might say, “Engage!”


Who Do You Trust?

In its business section this morning, the New York Times had a lengthy story about Angie’s List, the Indianapolis-based company that offers members access to reviews of service providers of various kinds. The reviews are provided by the members, and the article noted that–unlike sites like Yelp!–those reviews are not anonymous. While Angie’s list doesn’t publish the names of the reviewers, it does insist that evaluations come from identifiable individuals.

As the company’s public offering explained, they require this because it’s hard to trust anonymous statements and “facts” culled from the internet. The insistence that reviews come from verifiable sources is one way to increase the trustworthiness of the information being provided.

Lack of trust may be the signal characteristic of our times.

Angie’s List isn’t the only organization trying to deal with the wild west that is our current information landscape–far from it.  I would argue that much of what ails America these days is either enabled by or a direct result of mis-information, dis-information and  information uncertainty.

We are all being constantly bombarded with “news” that we aren’t quite sure we can trust.

The days when Mr. and Mrs. America tuned in to Walter Cronkite–and relied on the accuracy of his reporting–are long gone. Newspapers–with a few exceptions–fill the few pages they still publish with restaurant reviews and diet tips rather than fact-checked reporting. Cable “news” is anything but; it’s spin and talking points, and most Americans recognize that. It is increasingly difficult to determine the credibility of information we find online. No matter how goofy the perspectives or bizarre the conspiracy theories, you are likely to find confirmation of them in some fevered corner of the internet. (Just ask Rep. Bob Morris, who found “evidence” confirming his suspicions about those sneaky, abortion-loving, lesbian Girl Scouts.)

The problem is, when we no longer have authoritative sources and institutions we trust, societies don’t work very well. We lose an essential element of what social scientists call “social capital.” (Warning: shameless plug approaching.) I wrote about the causes and troubling consequences of diminished social and institutional trust a couple of years ago, in my book Distrust, American Style.

It isn’t just the folks who find internet confirmation that aliens landed in Roswell and the government covered it up. We’ve always had conspiracy theorists who are, shall we say, lightly tethered to reality. Today’s information landscape promises consequences far more pernicious than enabling the Holocaust deniers or encouraging the religious zealots convinced that the Rapture is imminent.

When ordinary Americans can’t be sure who is telling the truth, it’s easier to retreat into “us versus them” views of the world; easier to believe that a President who doesn’t look like you is really a secret Kenyan Muslim; easier to believe that an effort to provide healthcare is really an attack on religious liberty.

There is broad recognition that we have a problem.

The question is: how do we fix it?