COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference) and Facebook’s societal chaos are dominating headlines, so I wanted to spotlight a conversation I had earlier this year that sits at the intersection of the two. The big idea? We won’t solve climate pollution — or any of the Wicked Problems society is facing — until we solve information pollution first.
Here are 4 specific lenses that might change how you see climate change and Facebook/social media’s role.
Information pollution is a new phenomenon, and it affects how we defend ourselves as a species
There is something called information proximity: how close to a source of information are you?
Our primitive ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, dealt exclusively with immediate information and acted accordingly: there’s a predator, throw a spear! If it wasn’t real-time, then it was extremely relevant and actionable information passed down from elders. There was minimal distance between the source of information and those using it.
Their “information commons” — the information they all shared and who used it — was only as large as their family grouping or tribe. An individual could know almost all there was to know.
Our society has evolved, and the distance between information and the user has exploded. With the internet, that distance, that space, has become infinite. That is our new information commons. The social internet is our new global tribe, an infinite source of information that we all share and shape together. And it’s how we decide what to care about and ultimately what our threats are — the new version of the predator we have to throw a spear at. Whether it's climate change or something else.
A human could only ever hope of giving their attention to a miniscule fraction of this new information commons. So what information gets our attention? And, what happens if that space is flooded with noise and distraction and, in many cases, the polar opposite of what we're supposed to do to survive our threats - literally and vehemently informing us to do the opposite? That the predator isn’t even real?
That noise, that deliberate misdirection, is information pollution. The pristine, precious space of our information commons becomes a toxic bog. We become paralysed prey, both individually, and as a society. In many ways the effects are akin to those of a neurotoxin.
“Energy is a finite resource. And whether it’s the planet’s energy or our own human energy, our collective future depends on how we use it. At the moment, our decision-making in both categories is dangerously deficient: we’re burning up the planet and also burning far too much of our personal energy on the latest outrage of the day.” - Arianna Huffington
Why is this happening?
The economics of Information pollution
It is now no secret that the business model of the modern internet is toxic. But it’s helpful to understand just how absurd it is through the lens of climate polluters.
Online, the more attention you get, the more money you can make through the advertising money generated. More attention means more opportunities to show more ads. There are no rules on how you can achieve this. It is a Wild West that has therefore become a race to the bottom: the content that can provoke the most reactions performs best — clicks and comments and shares that bring in ever more eyeballs — regardless of accuracy or helpfulness. These are the algorithms that Facebook is being exposed for, over and over.
Can you imagine if corporations and leaders were actually paid more to pollute? This is what is actually now happening online.
But it goes deeper than that. Facebook, Youtube, and their social media brethren, pay out money to those helping pull in all that juicy advertising revenue. If you’re a content publisher, whether an individual or an entire website, the name of the game is to “flood the zone.” As one TikTok user recently told me, if you want to have a chance of gaining traction, you need to publish content at least 4 times a day. The odds you’ll be seen logically increase. In this case, they went from a new account to over 26K followers in half a year.
In the context of the information commons being the shared space we rely on to stay informed, and to make decisions, what happens to the information we actually need? It disappears under this avalanche of compulsively produced, half-baked, totally unnecessary content designed to grab our precious attention. 24 hours, reliably consumed by a million nothings. “Where did my day go?”
Now think of the corporations polluting our world. Can you imagine if they were actually paid more to pollute? This is what is actually now happening online.