Online media barely paused to take a breath from screaming about the End of Days post-Brexit vote. Then they got right back to it, screaming about how the Leave voters apparently didn’t even know what the EU was.

This made for a great headline or punchline; but, as is typical, that wasn’t really the case.

As we’ve also seen since, where journalists have bothered to do actual reporting, there were, and still are, information issues with the whole campaign and vote.

To quote a wise man: Never has information been more readily available — nor ignorance more widespread. I’m struggling to reconcile these two realities.”

Let us be very clear, however: misinformation and ignorance informing opinion and decisions are hardly the sole domain of the Brits. Or Americans. Or Canadians. Or various special-interest sectors of the Internet. Or. . .

We’re swamped

It also isn’t as simple as, Man, there are a lot of dumb people out there”. Let ye who has never shared a bogus news story or been duped by a hoax making the Facebook rounds cast the first stone.

Whether Brexit or many other topics, the prevalence and sheer volume of information online is a big part of the problem.

Once upon a time, there was some information out there, but most people had very little access to it. From the village wise woman’s knowledge of herbalism, to the priest’s delivery of services in Latin, sharing of information was often a one-to-one proposition, or at most one-to-some.

There weren’t many books, most people couldn’t read, and few people travelled far beyond their villages. They only met a certain number of people who possessed a certain amount of often-specialized knowledge. You were also so busy working hard to survive, you didn’t have time for a lecture, anyway.

Knowing only what you needed to know worked. Most of the time.

Nowadays, there’s near-infinite information out there, although access to it is still unevenly distributed. Even in widely connected countries, however, access is frequently not at par with skills in finding, filtering, and analysis. Many also don’t care, frankly.

One also wonders if those who grew up offline are the best choice to teach online information skills to digital natives.

So many sources, so little time

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by too much information (the precursor to decision paralysis). What ranks #1 on Google may not be the best source, just the most popular. But do we go past the first search results page? Or even the first few results (which are mostly ads nowadays)?

Plus, there are so many niche information sources now that if you’re starting with something as generic as a Google search, you’ve almost lost before you’ve begun. Communities, databases, archives — not to mention paywalls, professional credential requirements, etc.

Which sources are legitimate? What biases do they show, and what are their sources? Online content can also change instantly and often without notice. A useful resource could become unrecognizable, or disappear. There are many reasons why Wikipedia is not an acceptable primary source. . .

Cues like a professional-looking site mean little these days in terms of determining credibility. Many platforms provide slick templates and don’t require technical knowledge. Register a domain name, connect it to a service, set up a site, and start spouting any nonsense you want — in minutes!

But hey, it looks great. . .

When we’re overwhelmed, more than anything we just want something to make sense. And if we’re looking for information on something we’re concerned or confused about, we really want someone we can agree with.

That’s basic human nature, and it makes it really easy to develop and enrich one’s confirmation biases with the content we consume and communities we interact with. And yes, we all have them.

You could end up feeling intellectually well rounded in your information diet because you consume plenty of sources. When in fact you’ve just got a lot of feeds from people who all share your views, concerns, biases, and ideas. That’s where we get echo chambers.

There’s also the human propensity to be influenced by our own fears, which makes it easy to manipulate and influence people by preying on them.

And because we’re largely invisible online, it’s easier than ever to dismiss others who don’t agree with us. Because they’re not here, not real.

Fully informed or too fully informed?

Our brains also have varying thresholds of intellectual satiety. Some people are never satisfied that they know enough or have enough of the whole story. Others can scan a couple of headlines and feel like they have a decent grasp of big news or complex issues.

Even for those who think that they read a lot online, many studies show that we don’t read the same way as offline. Even the page format and availability of scrolling encourage skimming. I don’t know about you, but these days reading a long-form article is work for me.

I might close 10 tabs and feel like I just rolled away from an all you can eat news, culture, and current events info buffet. But if you quizzed me on those stories, odds are I wouldn’t be able to tell you all that much.

Ultimately, the idea that people would want to be ignorant on purpose, or that stupid people can change the future of entire countries, is terrifying. But knee-jerk reactions of beating “wrongness” out of them or shoving “true” information down people’s throats isn’t the way to go.

Perhaps, like trying to find the good stuff online, media amplified or not, we need to sit down, shut up, focus on what others are saying, then figure out the real story.

Photo: See No Evil Speak No Evil Hear No Evil by japanexperterna.se is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

 

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.