Tag Archives: fantasy

The Disinformation Age

Ed Stein, Rocky Mt.News
                                Ed Stein, Rocky Mt.News

When enough bad information is spread around it licenses all kinds of fantasies that take on a life of their own.

Since the mid-1800s information traveling at nearly the speed of light has transformed the opportunities for Americans to know more about their world. Of course the printed text offered a much earlier gateway to the minds of others.  But book culture still works on an extended clock, using time to develop more considered insights.  In contrast, electronic culture in the information age tends to give us allegations and assertions on the fly.  Now and then a few are actually true.

We are at a transition point when anyone can “publish” at will.  Access to digital media seems to create infinitely permeable understandings of what  “information” can be.  We are no longer shocked that willful distortion and strategic disinformation is  regularly in the mix of ‘views’ on offer.  But it is dismaying to see even a president-elect abandoning the usual rhetorical circumspection that comes to leaders who are about to speak in behalf of a nation. Trump is a fantasist. Never has a new chief executive come to the office with less regard for the reality-based world.  Politifact’s example of a tweet from Trump on November 15 is typical: “The @nytimes sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me.”  Not true.  Nor is there an evidence for the stunning claim that he “actually” won the 2016 popular vote, as he recently asserted.

Trump is a fantasist. Never has a new chief executive come to the office with less regard for the reality-based world.  

Any historical period has included individuals engaged in malicious distortion.  The Second World War’s Tokyo Rose was perhaps the most famous.  But we seem to be at the threshold of an era where claims anchored in evidence have no special status. This new mutant version of the information age finds ready acceptance of “alternate narratives” that are wrong, but carry just enough veracity to be taken seriously.

There are disturbing signs of our weakening regard for the truth everywhere.  A majority of Republicans still believe President Obama is not an American citizen. The evidence of his birth certificate and transformational presidency is not enough. And then we have the news that The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “post truth” as its word of the year, reflecting—among other things—the low-knowledge/big-change results seen recently with Britain’s Bexit vote and the 2016 presidential election.

People who study these things estimate that one in three Twitter posts are generated by computers programmed to lob what are literally mindless attacks against others. The accuracy of those issued from real humans often aren’t much better. And we now read reports that Facebook and Twitter are scrambling to tighten controls on “false news” stories and mindless invective thrown at political opponents. They have been overrun in part by “disinformation specialists” both home and abroad that enter the fray of national debate under cover of anonymity.   These hacks are able to repeat dubious accusations that would never see the light of day in a fact-checked magazine or  newspaper.

The willingness to believe falsehoods even overtakes scientific evidence and academic expertise. These days academic analysis is not so much admired as dismissed or ridiculed.  Many Americans have redefined universities as political organizations, perpetuating what they see as a runaway political correctness that substitutes for reasoned understanding. I’ve had columns and posts about communication processes trolled by readers less for what I said and more for who I am. For some it is enough to know that a person is an academician to make the label self-indicting.

When enough bad information is spread around it licenses all kinds of fantasies that take on their own life. So when a street in Miami Beach floods, some residents can still find reasons to blame the local water department for leaky pipes rather than accept the inconvenient truth of melting ice caps triggering “king tides.” Of course most of us eventually face consequences for not living in the reality-based world. As almost any smoker can tell you, truths have a way of imposing themselves on our pitiful efforts to look away from the obvious.

Beyond simple untruths, when proposed policies offend important values—justice, fairness and compassion, to cite just a few–there is too much time for the mischief of disinformation and misinformation to have their ways with us before reason can add to real understandings.  As Winston Churchill famously remarked, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

I was never much of a believer in teaching “media literacy” courses to students at all levels.  But the subject may indeed be needed to save us from the quicksand of fantasies scattered across the internet, and soon to be given the imprimatur of presidential authority.

Happily Misinformed


Many seem comfortable living without even an elementary understanding of the world they “know.” 

In his sobering 1989 study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwells on the irony of living in an information-rich age among uninformed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

As Entman notes, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance  observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Uncle Fred who is certain that the President is a Muslim who was born in Kenya, you have an idea of what kind of willful ignorance this represents.

Circumferance of the unknownThink of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed television programming—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.   When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no time left to notice our own informational black holes.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In this election cycle it’s worth remembering that nearly half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this is all happening at a time when candidates have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of  how they intend to govern.  Put It altogether and too many of us don’t notice that we are engrossed with the sideshow rather than the main event.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu