Lessons for the Information Age

Two decidedly opposite opinions on The Internet’s effects emerged in it’s early days, and persist even now.  These criticisms and praises of the net are only becoming more relevant each day.  Folks from futurists, to anarchists cherish the web’s ability to make information available worldwide.  Conversely, many people are concerned about the spread of disinformation at everyone’s fingertips.

Facebook rose to popularity in the early 2000s, and has since seen younger users drift away from their site.  Facebook, as a business, has an interest in keeping a large user-base.  Secret algorithms used by Facebook, and perhaps every social media platform, control what content users are shown.  These algorithms exploit Confirmation Bias, among other biases, to keep users coming back to their site.   Products of Facebook, Twitter, and Google present you with what you want to see.  One reason, is so that users aren’t discomforted  by cognitive dissonance and other “negative” emotional responses to their site.  This isn’t any one user’s fault.  These algorithms promote content that is similar to things you’ve liked, viewed, or searched for previously.  This is a systemic problem that happens behind-the-scenes of your favorite websites, and is mostly beyond your control.

That being said, The Internet is a powerful tool, which can be used for good.  It’s easier than ever to expose corruption by putting information online where everyone can see it.  When a website is cited, you can easily click to check any claims without even getting out of your seat.  Additionally, you can use search engines to instantly find facts and trustworthy sources.

“For true democracy to work, people need easy access to independent, diverse sources of news and information.” —democracynow.org/about

With claims from both sides that the media is unfairly for/against Trump or Hillary, these key ideas are incredibly relevant.  While we are all vulnerable to the virus of misinformation, advertisement, and propaganda, there are also ways to protect ourselves:

  1. Seek out a wide variety of content:  This is something I strive for every time I am reading the news or researching something.  If you normally get all your news from John Oliver, try watching videos made by people who have different views and backgrounds than you.  This is important for seeing both sides of every argument, and then coming up with your own balanced views.  Also, it sort-of messes with some website’s algorithms, because then you’ll get recommended content that isn’t just an echo of what you want to hear, but a broad collection of ideas.
  2. Check it: see an allegation without any sources to back it up?  Look for more info on that topic.  Just because a rich/high profile person said-so, doesn’t make it true.  Honestly, I don’t even trust so-called fact-checkers and fact-checking websites–I’d rather find out on my own than being assured something is true with little explanation.
  3. Follow the money:  Newspapers, tv programs, websites, even documentaries all get funding somehow, from somewhere.  Newspapers are almost always owned by a larger company, and they have a bottom line.  Always consider how money could be influencing the content these sources, which citizens rely on to be well-informed, put out there.  One site I like for getting my news is Democracy Now, although I do get information from elsewhere(see no.1), because they are a non-profit organization.

The wild internet is a tricky place.  Citizens of the internet need to protect themselves(and everyone else) from, and for, information.