The Information Smog – TEDx Cardiff

Posted by Prof. Richard Sambrook

This is the text of a talk given at TEDxCardiff in March 2015

The first week I joined Cardiff University I was invited to a lunch for new members of staff. Sitting next to me was a young academic who asked me what I did.

“I train postgraduate students to become journalists” I said. “What do you do?”
“I look for the gravitational waves given off by the Big Bang so we can uncover the 95% of the Universe that we know nothing about, ” he replied.
“OK, you win” …

But, as abstract, extraordinary and theoretical as gravitational waves and the big bang sound, there is real, tangible evidence which points to their existence. Which isn’t true of everything we read, watch or talk about these days – particularly online. Increasingly it’s hard to work out what we should believe or not believe, what’s true and what isn’t.

There is much about the information revolution that is fantastic. We have information at our fingertips, instant access to data, opinions, tools to communicate 24/7, it’s enabled greater creativity and whole new areas of enterprise. But it has also brought problems – as big social and economic changes often do.

About 150 years ago, the Industrial Revolution – largely built on coal and steel from here in South Wales – transformed the UK and the World. But it brought with it problems, including pollution and smog across our major cities.

Today, it is the Information Revolution which is transforming the world – but which in turn is leading to new problems. What I call, “Information Smog”. The digital pollution which traps the heat of argument and so-called trolling and which obscures the light which can illuminate issues and our lives; a smog which disorientates us, which can undermine public wellbeing.

I think it’s an area where we all need to take more personal responsibility.

What exactly is the problem?
It has multiple causes – but we are assaulted with messages, media, promotions, propaganda much of which is wrong, misleading, irrelevant or even harmful. It pollutes our public debate and social interactions. But many of us lack the means to recognise it let alone do anything about it – leading to public confusion, poor understanding and shallow government.

Some examples:
First, there’s Public Relations, designed to influence us. Nothing wrong with PR as long as we recognise what it is. But a few years ago colleagues at Cardiff University conducted a study which indicated some 60% of news in newspapers and broadcasts is PR or bought in from other agencies. More than most readers would assume I think. And related to PR our social media is increasingly full of clickbait headlines (“you’ll never guess what happened next!”) sponsored content and more masquerading as news.
Then there are “content farms” – teams of people employed to churn out content to try to entice the public to click and read; content commodotised beyond meaning.
Then there’s product placement – ever wondered why in House of Cards Kevin Spacey keeps mentioning Sony Playstation?

Then there’s political spin, designed to recruit us. We are at the start of what seems a long election campaign. Both sides asserting their version of events, their own statistics about health, education, the economy none of which align with the others. The leaders debates followed by the “spin room” with spin doctors spinning and asserting their candidate won. What are we supposed to make of it?
Then there’s political journalism – which often seems more about character assassination than about policy. Or commentators commenting on the comments of other commentators (at which point their feet can appear to have little discernible relationship with the ground at all).

Then there’s activism – which again is fine if we are clear that’s what it is. When NGO’s make videos about their causes, we understand they are promoting their interests. But when big business secretly funds climate scepticism the underlying interests are not so clear and debate is confused as a consequence.

Then there’s the use of misleading statistics and surveys. Confusing correlation and causation for example. The rise in autism coincides with a rise in the sale of organic food, so organic food causes autism? Wrong! But we see that and other logical fallacies minute by minute on the web. Or the latest cure for cancer which unfortunately isn’t.

Then there’s propaganda – which can be Russia using the media to assert a version of events over Ukraine and to undermine its enemies. Or, with a small “p”, Fox News telling us that Birmingham is a no-go zone for non muslims. Yes, that was funny because it was called-out so rapidly (my favourite Twitter reaction said Fox News would be more accurate if they employed actual foxes!). But what was going on there? Did they really believe that (which is shocking for a major news channel)? Or did they know it was wrong but think they could fool the audience (which is worse)? It’s about asserting a version of the world which fits with their ideology, regardless of the facts.

It’s part of what is called in the US “the post-truth era”. As if truth is a passing fashion we can leave behind.

Part of it is pure muddled thinking. This post-modern idea that there is no such thing as objective truth, just different narratives. Rubbish.

The American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was once challenged by someone in the audience who said there is no such thing as objective truth. He said wait – imagine you are strapped in the electric chair. The executioner has his hand on the switch. You shout “But I didn’t do it!” And he replies, “AH, that’s just YOUR version of the truth…” It’s likely to focus your mind on whether there is an absolute truth.

Or the academic Terry Eagleton who once pointed to different kinds of truth. If you say “there is a tiger in the bathroom” – either there is or there isn’t. Both can’t be simultaneously true. But if I say “Racism is evil” you may agree. But others might argue it’s not so much evil, as prejudiced, or a symptom of poor education or a lack of proximity. In other words, there is still scope for debate. They are different kinds or categories of truth – which get regularly confused.

Then there’s infotainment – the listicles, ten best cat videos and so on. Nothing wrong with those – as long as we recognise they are not statistically meaningful in any way and are designed to cull our user data to sell us more things.

Then there’s the worry over what some call “digital obesity” – our dependance on social media and digital devices – as addictive as sugar. We can’t put them down – lost in the information smog.

And that smog, or digital noise can also obscure real gaps in our information – holes in what we know. From increased censorship in some societies like China or Iran where media control limits what we know to questions of public interest at the top of the news one week – and lost, unresolved, the next as our interest moves on. We can be less aware of what we don’t know due to the distraction of the quantity and volume of information out there.

We live at a time when immediacy, impact and volume are prized above accuracy. We live in an attention economy – with many people vying for our time – but with a debased currency. Often more interested in inflaming than informing, more heat than light.

So what are the consequences of this?

One of the main ones is a lack of public understanding. There was an IpsosMOri poll last year which was headlined: “You are probably wrong about almost everything”.

It said that :

– Britons overstate the proportion of Muslims in their country by a factor of four.
– People from the UK also think immigrants make up twice the proportion of the population as is really the case.
– Britons believe 24% of people are unemployed, an estimate over three times higher than the actual rate.
– Teenage pregnancy rate was estimated to be five times higher than the actual figure.

You don’t have to look at polls. Check the online myths. Search for “airborne Ebola” and you will find more than 500,000 items discussing whether it exists. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that ebola has ever been transmitted by airborne means. Or just pick the conspiracy theory of your choice.

The information smog has led to a profound lack of trust in journalism, politics, business, the banks – all of which may be fair enough. But it also corrodes the institutions which support our way of life.

It rusts away at trust – which is an issue for the big technology companies as well. If a Google search throws up wrong information or deliberate disinformation we will stop using it. A polluted internet is a concern to all those who have built empires upon it – which is why they are trying to favour more authoritative sources, flag up fake news and so on. But even they, with all their resources, are struggling – so what hope does the consumer have?

A few years ago, off the back of another conspiracy theory, the American columnist Peggy Noonan, who used to be Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, wrote:
“Here is the fact of the age: People believe nothing. They think everything is spin and lies. The minute a government says A is true, half the people on Earth know A is a lie. And when people believe nothing, as we know, they will believe anything”

One of the paradoxes is that as trust falls, credulity grows.

All these different kinds of content look and feel the same online or on our phones. So people are questioning less at a time when they should be questioning more where their information comes from. The lines between independent information, PR, spin, propaganda and so on are blurring – and we need to be sharper to spot the differences.

Last year I was on a panel discussion with a very clever and accomplished woman who runs a small NGO. We were having this kind of discussion when she said “Look, it’s only you old journalists who care about these differences. For the rest of us it’s just information that we’ll take or leave as we choose.”

To which the answer is if we really don’t care about the difference between truth and propaganda then we may as well be in Germany in 1936, or Rwanda before the genocide, or Serbia before the Balkan wars. Of course we are not in so extreme a situation yet. But information can be a weapon and should be handled with care. Truth matters – not just your version of it, but facts. They deserve more respect.

So what can we do about it?

Well I don’t think we can rely on government or business to deal with it. Many of them have a stake in creating the information smog. They have no duty of care towards us. So we must take care of ourselves. And that’s appropriate in a time when we have all been given the tools to join in the public debate and create content. We are all media creators now. Every click or share helps define our popular culture. So we need to take some responsibility for it.

At heart, it’s a question of personal media literacy and critical thinking.
In the UK, media literacy is little discussed and bodies like OFCOM, the media regulator, charged with measuring it tend to look at technical competence rather than critical thinking. How many people have access to broadband, how many smartphones etc?
But it’s critical thinking and questioning that matters. Everybody should be questioning what they are consuming and being told about the world.

So I want to offer a simple toolkit to help find your way through the information smog. When you are presented with information, news, a view that you are not sure about – ask these simple questions:

Who is saying it? (What’s the source? Is it clear? Do they have an axe to grind?)
Why are they telling me? (Are they trying to inform, influence, entertain, sell or mislead?)
What’s the evidence? (Is there any evidence? Does it seem well grounded, reliable?)
Where are other views? (Is there another way of looking at this?)

If it fails any of those tests, or if those questions are difficult to answer, I suggest you don’t breathe too deeply. You may be trapped in the information smog, which can be bad for your health.