Behavioural change needed to tackle crisis of democracy

Kieran Madden

Auckland, June 25, 2018

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” lamented Poet T S Eliot.

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The rampant, internet-fuelled growth of access to information has overwhelmed our existing systems of democracy.

This is a serious problem for politics; fake news and misinformation now obscure and distort debates that guide the aspirations and actions of our nation.

For our democracy to do what it says on the tin, we need to change our behaviour and rework our shaky knowledge infrastructure.

Inexplicable paradox

Rather than empowering us so to think independently for ourselves like enlightened liberal individuals, the paradox of the information age according to philosopher Gloria Origgi is that it has made us “more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.”

The information age is over, she continues, it is time for the Reputation Age “in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated, and commented upon by others.”

Troubling Results

This discerning process is currently a free-for-all with troubling results. A massive MIT study of over 126,000 tweets by over three million users across 10 years, for example, found that fake stories were much more likely to go viral.

Twitter users were also around 70% more likely to share a false story than a true one.

The authors put this down to people preferring stories that are both novel and provoke an emotional reaction like fear or disgust.

Alarmingly, “the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”

False Messages

Concerted efforts to correct or debunk this misinformation face an uphill battle too, and again, particularly for political stories.

A meta-analysis of 65 studies with a total of over 23,000 participants suggested that false political messages appeared to be the most difficult to remediate compared with other topic areas like health—in the long-run people tended to return to their original positions, and interestingly, especially so for educated people with political leanings.

Leading thinkers around the world are trying to solve this informational mess.

Origgi reckons we need to move toward a “civilised cyber-world…where people know how to assess critically the reputation of information sources, and can empower their knowledge by learning how to gauge appropriately the social “rank” of each bit of information that enters their cognitive field.”

Things to do

While they work on a new reputation architecture, there are things I think we can, and should, all do. Firstly, we need to accept we are part of the problem.

Before immediately sharing that tantalising story that portrays those on the other side in a negative light, make sure the source is both traceable and reliable.

This is not always easy to uncover though, so secondly, I also think we need a new civics education that helps citizens navigate and discern online sources of information.

As Einstein said: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”

This is a slow-burning crisis of democracy, and we all have our part to play.

Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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