This article is based on the panel From “info pollution” to “infobesity”: reframing the information crisis to finally solve it at the 2022 edition of The International Journalism Festival.
The world is grappling with an information crisis which, without exaggeration, threatens to topple everything humanity has worked so hard to build: from damaging our health and productivity, to spawning division and violence and genocide, undermining truth, and threatening democracy itself.
And yet, progress seems maddeningly slow for such a broadly damaging issue. Not simply for a lack of effort, but more than anything a lack of clarity. On every side — from the consumers fretting over it, to politicians discussing what to do about it — there is a tendency to let this nebulous problem overwhelm us; to debate as if this is entirely uncharted territory, paralyzed by the newness of it all. To communicate it to others in completely unrelatable ways.
This is a mistake.
Humans have already faced many modern challenges that were enormous in their reach and created dangerous new situations in everyday society. Thanks to hindsight bias it’s easy for us to forget just how complex and overwhelming these issues once seemed, too. As if we’ve always had the solutions, or they were forgone conclusions.
Using these challenges as reference points can help make the information crisis much easier to communicate, talk about, and solve — including in how we answer for free speech. Here are three key issues through which to change how you see it: obesity, pollution, and road safety.
1) The Obesity Epidemic
The comparison: the rise and impact of cheaply processed food → the rise and impact of cheaply processed information
People today would be shocked to see how parents were feeding their kids 50 years ago, so casually buying them packaged “food” that was no better than sludge. Anyone today would find early food and drink advertisements to be disturbingly misleading, and the total lack of labeling or transparency extremely uncomfortable.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to think so critically, but back then we were facing equally uncharted territory. The parallels from our old information reality to our new one are unmistakable.
We went from food [and information] scarcity, and a fairly direct relationship with our food [and information] sources, to food [and information] over-abundance and largely disconnected from our food [and information] sources. Naively assuming the new processed food [and information] was equivalent and just as trustworthy.
We went from making food [and information] choices more naturally, to being bombarded with businesses dependent on getting us to consume as much food [and information] and as regularly as possible. We went from eating food [and consuming information] functionally, to consuming more casually and impulsively, by design.
What can we learn from how we tackled the resulting obesity epidemic? Last year I made the case that we are in the middle of an Infobesity Epidemic — and this looking through this lens can help us solve it.
- Obesity epidemic → Infobesity epidemic.
- What we did about it → what we can do about it.
- Made nutrition part of standard education → make media literacy, digital literacy, and informal logic part of standard education.
- Made it law to provide context, by way of mandatory nutrition and ingredient labels → make it law for publishers and platforms to provide context, by way of mandatory labels identifying all polarizing language and source bias, including extreme sources.
- Made it count by teaching people to reference calorie counts → make it count by teaching and/or enabling people to count their information intake, including types of content.
- Made it illegal for fast food chains to promote unhealthy consumption e.g. promoting and selling a 3kg burger or free upgrades to 2L soft drinks → make it illegal for popular sites or platforms to promote unhealthy consumption and sharing i.e. infinite scroll, overreliance on clickbait or rage bait, allowing people to share without reading.
In the context of free speech, the above labeling is essential. Trolls, misinformation publishers, and other bad actors will often scream “censorship!” when limited in any way. The beauty of transparent labels — just as we’ve come to expect of food — is that it allows users to behave exactly as they always have, but appends their posts with the necessary context to help others understand what they’re looking at.
“Some people are quick to start shouting “censorship” at such ideas, but this isn’t about stopping anybody from doing anything. It’s about giving others desperately needed context before you hijack their attention.”
2) The Industrial Revolution and resulting Pollution and Littering
The comparison: industrial production and consumption of things resulting in careless treatment of our physical environment → industrial production and consumption of information resulting in careless treatment of our informational environment
The Earth is a perfectly contained, self-fulfilling ecosystem on a rock hurtling through space. It has everything we need, naturally. But it is also finite, and deeply interconnected.
As our air, water, and land became poisoned by industrial production, a new realization emerged: our physical health is dependent on protecting the health of our physical environment, and we are all affected by it. After an initial period of unchecked production, laws were gradually brought into place that helped address this.
On the consumer side, the sudden flood of packaging and disposable goods meant people had to be educated on disposing of them properly. They needed to be taught how a little bit of litter here and there could add up to a disturbingly polluted natural ecosystem.
Now replace the Earth with the internet. The internet is a perfectly contained ecosystem that can hold all the information we need, available at our fingertips, and deeply interconnected. But we have finite attention to give it, finite time and energy to retrieve the information we need.
With the emergence of effortless production and effortless sharing we are in an early industrial revolution stage of the internet, where the impact on our [informational] environment goes virtually unchecked. We’re seeing our mental estuaries being filled with sludge. Our finite attention is being spent on distraction, lost in noise that buries the signal we need. We can easily spot the industrial [information] polluters, but we haven’t yet done anything about it.
Elon Musk, love him or hate him, had a couple of quotes about the internet that sum up its power very well:
“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic—being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data… like an oracle."
“...it's like humanity acquiring a collective nervous system. Whereas previously we were more like a collection of cells.”
That last point is apt.
With our physical environment, if we pollute it we pay the price with our physical health. The earth intrinsically connects us all.
With our informational environment, if we pollute it we pay the price with our mental health. The internet intrinsically connects us all. It is a collective nervous system. In this way, information pollution is akin to a neurotoxin.
This is why we can use industrial pollution and consumer littering as a reference point of how to handle the information crisis.
- Pollution and littering of physical environment → Pollution and littering of informational environment.
- What we did about it → what we can do about it.
- A significant push to educate consumers of both their responsibility and the impact of industrial polluters, in the context of appreciating the importance and fragility of natural environment → an equivalent push that drives home the importance and fragility of our information environment, highlighting consumer responsibility as well as impact of industrial [information] polluters. Eg clickbait shouldn’t be seen as only an annoyance.
- Standards and laws were enacted to bring industrial polluters into line → standards and laws should apply to those with an industrial impact in a media context. Eg if you reach more than 50,000 people through your account, you should had additional responsibilities to ensure you can’t use it spam, or deliberately mislead or agitate. Perhaps every year an automated script could be run — with code and logic openly available for the public to check — across all sites and accounts reaching over 50K people, with significant fines for those that return detection of loaded language or known misinformation above certain reasonable levels.
It’s important here to highlight the difference between free speech and free reach. Once again it would be easy to reactively dismiss the idea of information pollution fines as Orwellian censorship. But think about the television and radio requirements that already exist in most countries.
The expectation has already been, since the conception of modern mass media, that channels with industrial reach are obliged to respect the power that comes with that reach — and not doing so results in fines or being taken off the air.
Why should the internet be any different? The average consumer with a reach that is equivalent to what they could achieve in the physical world can do whatever they please, without consideration. The moment that consumer achieves a following and impact that would require industrial production in the physical world, they should have corresponding responsibilities and liabilities.
The key to any such regulatory considerations would be the transparency: ensuring that anyone can openly see and understand the standards applied, and can petition to appeal them with supporting evidence.
POST TO BE COMPLETED AFTER PANEL:
based on panel discussion and key ideas added