Reading Between The Lines In The Internet Age

A chief historical lesson validated by the current state of American politics is that a functioning democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. Pervasive ignorance, and the susceptibility to demagoguery it entails, is the surest way to authoritarianism. Averting this inherent vulnerability of representative governance requires a degree of responsibility from both the consumers and providers of information.

Foremost, citizens must want to be informed. To operate, a healthy democracy requires a substantial portion of its population to actively engage the policy-making process; whether that be by participating in elections, holding officials to account, engaging in policy advocacy, or any other civic-minded behavior. Fundamentally, citizens must believe they have a stake in the shaping of their future. Apathy, or not caring to understand and manipulate the factors that affect this future, is a destructive force for a vibrant representative state. To this end, the current U.S. political climate reinforces the fact that, to paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is certainly interested in you.

However, my reason for writing this post has to do with another threat to democratic governance: misinformation. It goes without saying that for citizens to make good decisions regarding their society’s wellbeing, they must have access to at least generally factual information. Much has been written in recent months about the threat of fake news, attacks on the press, and increased use of Orwellian jargon (i.e. “alternative facts”). What I wish to contribute to this discussion with this post is to highlight the importance of actively seeking out accurate information and how the internet has made this both a harder and easier task.

The original hope of the internet was that it would give people around the world power. It was a medium that promised to make information unprecedentedly free and accessible. The future seemed guaranteed to be one of endless possibilities for knowledge exploration and self-improvement; where a vastly more informed and forward-thinking society seemed an inevitable outcome. However, while the internet has certainly changed the world in innumerable positive ways, it has also had a dark side: most pertinently exemplified today by widespread misinformation and its dire real-world effects.

The internet has played a key role in catalyzing the polarization trend in American politics and society. The balkanization of the media starting in the 1990s immediately bled over into the internet, where hyper-ideological blogs and “news” sources not beholden to journalistic standards provided counter-narratives on reality that have served to reinforce peoples’ deepest biases. Unfortunately, rather than be a place to broaden one’s horizons and hear different viewpoints without constraint from any information “gatekeeper,” the internet has for many become a self-selecting echo-chamber. Politicians and political parties have of course exacerbated and capitalized on this phenomenon for their own gains; leading to the current deeply divided political landscape in the United States.

The situation has become that, for too many people, nothing is true. No distinction is made between what is a contestable fact and what isn’t. Writings by credible, respected journalists or outlets or leading experts are held on par with somebody who may for all anyone knows be writing in his or her basement. It is all looks the same in the age of social media.

The fact is that self-selection bias is a thing and we humans lean towards others who agree with our perspectives. However, while we cannot eliminate biases, we can minimize unjustifiable biases. To separate misinformation and propaganda from facts and reality, the following approaches have proven effective for me:

  1. Foremost, I remind myself that policy issues (whether international or domestic) are broad subjects with lots of nuance. People dedicate lifetimes to understanding them. The  best thing to do is have a dispassionate, evidence-based analytical approach and give more weight to complex rationales than convenient explanations.
  1. Dovetailing with the previous point, don’t fall for the trap of communal opinion; trying to figure out how to feel about something by seeing what the supposed consensus opinion is, whether online or offline. Rather than the hive-mind, it’s better to find and listen to people who are actually knowledgeable on the subject at hand.
  1. Read the print media. Ironically, we are today in an age where reporting and high-quality journalism has never been better. I get almost all of my news from the print media—which provides far more in-depth news and analysis than cable or network TV news. Papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, the Atlantic, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy, plus a number of more area-focused sites, like Al Monitor or LobeLog. I also regularly read the work of a number of columnists and bloggers, who are respected academics or experts in their field. Think tank or various NGO papers, reports, and analyses are also an invaluable resource.
  1. Twitter is an incredible medium for getting news and information. You can directly connect with journalists/scholars/analysts/policy wonks and their work, get eyewitness accounts, and overall gain a feel for where the zeitgeist is at on different issues.

In sum, it’s more than possible to escape the specter of misinformation by exercising critical thinking, having a curious mind, and a penchant for reading.