Crossing America. Thoughts About #MisInfoCon

That sultry cybernetic voice wasn’t resonating those words “recalculating,” “recalculating” when my mental GPS needed her the most. I’d be sharing day one thoughts from of #MisInfoCon if I’d left Vancouver, BC a day earlier. My miscalculating, miscalculating, meant missing an afternoon of talks hosted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism that explored the psychology of misinformation. All well, strategies to strengthen the trustworthiness of information across the entire news ecosystem with speakers -

Emily Thorson, Boston College, on “belief echoes” and fact checking

Soroush Vosoughi, RumorGauge, MIT Media Lab

Julia Haslanger, Open Notebook, Hearken

Tessa Sproule, Vubble

Ellery Roberts Biddle, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, international responses to ‘fake news’

Mark Little, founder Storyful, truth and trust in journalism

This was followed by an off-the-record town hall discussion moderated by Emily Bell, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, featuring:

  • Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed
  • Brendan Nyhan, Political Science Professor, Dartmouth
  • Stacy-Marie Ishmael, JSK Stanford Fellow

There’s still a weekend to roll up my sleeves, work and process being part of the Creative Studio to turn ideas into action.

Crossing America on Amtrak gave me four days to take notes about what I’ve seen, what’s I’ve heard said, and what I’ve read. Signals don’t roam Montana’s mountain passes or Minnesota’s prairie vastness, giving me much needed wide open analog spaces and solitude.

Before crossing the Great Divide I caught myself gazing into an abyss. Those disconnected and unmediated moments thinking about the monster of misinformation, and the ties binding creator, sender, and receiver left me wondering what the abyss was staring back at.

The complexity of the issue makes it easy to lunge in and out of over-complication which is a completely unnecessary exercise. It’s simple, the entire tangle starts in the sticky web of free. It’s disconcerting how the platforms of free, an infection of bots (bad bots accounting for 28.9% of web traffic), and the anonymous trolls are rampantly scaling the misinformation monster. What’s not simple is how free is eroding the sense of obligation. We’re free to communicate and consume information at a massive scale, while an obligation to fact is freely dismissed.

Obligation erodes and with it trust, honesty, reasoned debate, and public decorum. This probably sounds like naivety disconnected from reality, but the prospect of descending into a massively scaled misinformed world is an exceptionally terrifying bump in the night.

Journalists committed to facts are the ties binding us to the information needed for a more knowledgable world. Yet the commitment to facts in the face of eroding trust feels like facing the Werewolf armed with a wooden stake. Being informed is harder than being amused. Our biggest challenge today is making information more valuable than amusement.

Neil Postman said “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death). This resonates as loudly today, as it did in 1985.

There’s no technological silver bullet with misinformation stopping power. Technology has unleashed the monster, and now has to shoulder the obligation to ensure journalism, facts, and the pursuit of truth aren’t drowned in the black lagoon of misinformation.

Journalism isn’t the problem, the business model is. This isn’t about building a better algorithm, it’s about reclaiming trust and credibility and getting more people to care about being informed. A good place to start is supporting Emily Bell’s suggestion that “the four or five leading technology companies could donate $1 billion in endowment each for a new type of engine for independent journalism.”

I don’t know if there’s a golden ratio of information to amusement, but it seems like memes are too heavily weighted. I’m imagining the power information can have when the strings are removed and it’s no longer a business of turning clicks into cash. It’s going to be a meaningful two days of #MisInfoCon working with exceptional people who are committed to turning ideas into action.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”Aristotle, (Metaphysics)