In the Age of Information, Many of Us Know Little

“….information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
— Herbert A. Simon

One of the main stories to come out of the 2016 Presidential Election that saw Donald Trump win the White House were several stories about the proliferation of “fake news.”

Famed, yet mildly disgraced news anchor Brian Williams said fake news most certainly affected the election.

In the Digital Age of Information, this seems ironic. Though, perhaps not to many philosophers and/or writers, like Herbert A. Simon above or Idries Shah below,

“People today are in danger of drowning in information; but, because they have been taught that information is useful, they are more willing to drown than they need be.”

The now infamous study from Buzzfeed proclaimed in its headline that “Fake News Outperformed Real News on Facebook!” (Granted, this is the same organization that would later be lambasted by reporters from many outlets for reporting on a dossier despite serious ethical and credibility issues. But just go with me on this for a moment. It will all make sense.)

In today’s world, one is faced with an alarming amount of information from 24-hour news cycles to advertisements to news discoveries all happening on a daily basis, not to mention all the stuff your friends are up to on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or maybe even Medium. The big challenge all of us face on a daily basis is sifting through it in order to possibly get some vague semblance of what’s happening all over the world.

But with the recent discussions on “fake news” thanks in part to this past election, many of us are getting a wake up call to wear our thinking caps.

“We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.”
— Alain de Botton

It’s not surprising that many teens and those born after 1995 are extremely technology literate. What might be surprising is many teens cannot tell the difference between the real news and the “fake news.” According to a Stanford study featured in The Wall Street Journal, 82% cannot tell the difference. Granted, they are middle schoolers, but these are the future generations. The study also revealed

“…the finding that a significant proportion of high school students saw Facebook posts as being trustworthy based on factors that had nothing to do with the identity of the person who posted it, or any qualifications they might have.”

But it’s no wonder that the lines continue to blur, especially when partisan politics becomes involved or when data can be manipulated so easily. Not to mention, as The Washington Post’s Margret Sullivan points out in her Medium article how the term “fake news” has been co-opted by many, which in turn diminishes the very definition of the term.

What is real news anyway when it’s growing increasingly apparent that each political party is living in their own reality? Remember the partisan political debate of the weather that ensued after Hillary Clinton’s health episode at the 9/11 memorial? In case you missed it, take a look, starting around 3:57.

Or, while perhaps it wasn’t a Machiavellian capitalist intent of the Wall Street Journal to make it seem like they were pandering to both sides of the political isle, in these hyper-partisian times it’s no wonder many took a routine revision process as something underhanded.

Things have become biased to the point where handy charts like the one below are needed, in order to differentiate where news organizations fall in their political allegiances.

But even without these examples, the question of what is real news vs what is fake news remains, partially because mainstream news media isn’t held accountable for their blunders.

This isn’t meant to sound like one of The Republican Administration’s attacks to delegitimize the media. I understand that in this 24-hour news cycle everyone is trying to keep up with each other. However, I think we can all agree the news media failed us in spectacular fashion during the 2016 elections, and therefore some reforms are needed.

I understand the idea behind why someone would call out newspapers and other media as “fake news” when they get major things wrong, yet don’t put the same amount of effort into letting everyone know they messed up. As the staunchly conservative website Daily Caller explains in the headline of an article, “Errors From the Press are Piling Up.”

Justin Zarb’s article also examines how the lack of mass media’s integrity (using examples from the Washington Post in particular) perhaps contributed to American’s lack of trust in mass media, potentially opening the doors wide for alternative facts.

Because the news media has been shooting itself in the foot, there remains a question in the minds of many. What is fake news vs real news?

Is it considered fake news when the majority of polls that predicted a Hillary Clinton win turned out to be bupkiss? Is it considered fake news when a Washington Post article about Russia hacking the power grid turned out to be trash? Is it considered fake news when it appears as though many of The Trump Administration’s promises are going to mostly hurt the people who voted for him all because it is a piece from the Washington Post?

Is it considered fake news when the President of the United States mentions some sort of alarming event that happened in Sweden when in reality absolutely nothing happened in Sweden?

“They tell me we’re living in an information age, but none of it seems to be the information I need or brings me closer to what I want to know. In fact (I’m becoming more and more convinced) all this electronic wizardry only adds to our confusion, delivering inside scoops and verdicts about events that have hardly begun: a torrent of chatter moving at the speed of light, making it nearly impossible for any of the important things to be heard.”
— Matthew Flemming

But then there’s also a whole other issue when it comes to real vs. fake news and the new favorite punchline of many; “alternative facts.” The issue is about studies, and the data manipulation that can be done to prove a point of either side. Did you catch John Oliver’s comedic expose of how maybe not all scientific studies are created equal? If not, lucky for you, it’s right here:

When John Stewart was still helming The Daily Show, he also spent a little time looking into a suspect study done by Kraft. Granted, that’s not the only example. There are more. Lots more!

Speaking of studies, remember that study by Buzzfeed? Well, turns out it may have been a tad flawed, according to a piece by the somewhat right leaning Washington Examiner. Or maybe it had no affect on the 2016 election at all, if this study by Stanford and New York University is to be believed.

My first article posted on Medium is about how now more than ever all of us need to employ our thinking caps frequently due to the sheer amount of information, disinformation and misinformation out there. The full article can be read below.

But the trouble is the two political parties in the U.S grow increasingly more divided in their rhetoric, they are also creating two distinct and solely inclusive echo-chamber realities that are trying to force everyone else into their individual confirmation bias on thoughts. Or as Clay Rivers surmises in his Medium article “On the Lost Art of Critical Thinking,”

“These days we Americans have become so entrenched in our opinions that the world has become binary. Either-or. Win or Lose. Us vs Them. Enough already. Those practices predispose us to accept without question that which stokes the bonfires of our biases as well as that which we regard as the ‘other.’”

He’s not the only one saying this. The Atlantic ran a recent article about a speech Marco Rubio gave on the senate floor fresh on the heels of Elizabeth Warren’s silencing. Granted, in a backhanded way he was defending while also decrying it, but his words still ring a little truth,

“We have become a society incapable of having debates any anymore… we are reaching a point in this republic where we’re not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.”

But, does anybody really care about facts and truth anymore? And if anyone does care, a larger question is do they care enough to simultaneously work with others and look in the mirror to break down their own walls of confirmation bias?

Do Republican voters care that the Trump Administration’s potential dismantling of many Obama programs will most likely hurt them more?

Do Democrats care that they maybe be helping Republicans with their boisterous tactics are just playing in to the Trump Administration’s hands? Do Democrats care that obstruction at all costs actually bolsters Republicans?

Why is nobody asking if it seems a little too convenient that Republican politicians have their individual talking points of spin ready to go, as do Democratic politicians have their own “spin” ready to go no matter the breaking news or situation?

How much of those seeking a little confirmation bias are allowing “observational equivalence” to distort their perceptions even more? Abby Ohlheiser’s post in the Washington Post examines how certain, speculative ideas can be spread so quickly.

“In order to learn anything we need time. And to make time we must use information filters allowing us to ignore most of the information aimed at us. We must ignore much to learn a little.”
— Mario Bunge

In these times, it’s important we work together when possible to help everyone not only think critically, but also hold our sources of information accountable. Some, like The Smithsonian say we need to look at and really study the past.

But in doing so we also have to acknowledge all parts of our past, and present. It is important that all of us especially reckon with the painful and shameful parts of our past when it comes to history, as The Establishment’s Kali Holloway points out in the article, “Nothing Will Really Change Until America Reckons With Race.

Biko Mandela Gray points out in his article, “Alternative Facts; or the Truth About America,”

“The truth is that there have always been at least two truths in this country — a white one and a black one. There are others, to be sure — like what Muslims actually believe and what (typically) conservative white people think about Muslims, and who women are versus the “pussies” men (of all shades) typically come to see them as. At least two truths. Which means alternative facts.”

When taking in this information as a whole, it’s easy to become cynical and passive. Looking at all of this may feel like everything is contradicting itself. This isn’t surprising to me because the world is a complex and chaotic place. The problem is that some people, usually leaders like to exploit this chaos and keep all of us confused. But now, more than ever, we need truth. No longer can we allow ourselves to delay our conscious evolution through spin, outrage, moral ambiguity, confirmation bias or “alternative facts.”

I think most of us can agree that it feels like we’re at a critical point in this timeline we share together. Because of that feeling, it means we can no longer screw around feeding our brains crap and simply giving it information it wants to hear. Now is the time for critical thinking, compassion and being present. We need to be able to look into our our biases and willful blindness, as explained in a summary of Margaret Heffernan’s book on Brain Pickings. For those who don’t like reading, she also gave a TED talk.

Anyone not on board with that is simply a hindrance testing the resolve of everyone else who wants clear change. Some people are scared of the truth, and that’s OK.

Pain can sometimes accompany the truth. But in the long run, that pain makes us stronger, and allows us to see the world much more clearly so that we may all live a little more comfortably in our understanding that we are helping ourselves and generations of the future.

If this article resonated with you in some way, feel free to like or follow. Some other articles of mine may appear below too. Feel free to read them too. Thank you for being.

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