Wednesday, March 9, 2016

There's too much information available to not understand how to make use of it

There is a ton of information available today. With nearly 130 million books and a billion web sites officially registered, there's a lot to read. Add to that huge amount of information the user-generated content like the over 5 million Wikipedia articles (for just English), or the 300 hours of video added to YouTube every minute, or the over 2,000,000 posts/day in blog land, or the fact that facebook sees over 350 million new pictures uploaded every day, and you can easily see that without tools to navigate this sea of information, it will be easy to get lost, be misinformed, or to never find what you needed in the first place.
The left side of the image above cites statistics used by Markham Nolan in his TED talk given in 2012. The difference between those numbers and the ones I just looked up are...staggering, to say the least, telling us the the deluge of new information is accelerating, not slowing down.

I first want to emphasize that no information is completely worthless; it just depends on what you're using it for. I wish to discuss methods for vetting the truthfulness of information that we find, be it through tweets or facebook posts or books and news outlets. I want to, with your help, reader, create a toolbox that the average person can access and use (with minimal training) to vet just about anything they read/watch, because if it's not fairly easy to use, it won't be used. Read on for some initial discussion on the matter.

The problem

Since we can't know everything all the time, we must rely on curated sources of information to help us digest what's important to us. This includes news outlets, blogs, specific personalities' social media outlets, academic journals, regular journals (magazines, for you Americans), newspapers, radio, etc. The problem is, you still can't trust these sources.

I don't think it difficult to persuade you that social media is not an accurate source of information. Not only do people post whatever they want and have incentive to lie, but the social media outlets themselves effect how you view information. In a famous study, Facebook manipulated the emotional content of content on users' walls to see how it effected their emotions, and found a very strong correlation.

Let's attack news outlets for a moment. Most people think of news outlets as sources of information, where they can find out what's happening in the world and learn about the implications of events. So you'd expect that people who watch news would understand events better than those who watch no news. In a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University, re-published by the Business Insider and others, they asked over 1000 people questions about domestic and international events, and looked at the news outlet they followed. The conclusion is that while watching news generally helped, it didn't help much. No group was able to answer a full 2/5 questions correctly (on average).
There's even a great web site that rates the validity of "facts" presented by the 5 major news networks--take a look at your favorite. These facts have made me so skeptical of news outlets, particularly US ones, that I no longer trust anything they say.

Generally, there are 4 major problems that must be overcome to make information useful.
  1. Access. You need to be able to access the information to make any use of it. This seems obvious, but a lot of meaningful, useful information is inaccessible. This includes useful search tools to find what you're looking for, being literate enough to make use of what you find, and the ability to actually obtain what you find to read. An example of a broken system still widely in use are scholarly publications. Scholarly journals are seen as some of the most credible sources of information, as they are written and reviewed by experts, but frequently to gain access to them, you must pay. Sometimes it's per article, and sometimes it's for subscription-based access to everything, but it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for access to some journals, even though publishers add almost no value for the cost. This is referred to as a paywall, and it inhibits the flow of credible information. In fact, there is no excuse for using a system like this today.
  2. Level of presentation. This refers to the vocabulary and amount of technical jargon used in work, and the overall ease of understanding the work. For articles, you can have very technical papers that use a lot of jargon or special words, usually designed for telling others in that field about the research, or works that are just hard to read, though they could be written much more simply. You can also have the opposite problem, where something is so simplified that it really doesn't help the media consumer understand the topic. Media should support the audience it's intended for. The very technical paper cited above isn't wrong--it just should also be accompanied by a simplified paper that explains more to somebody completely unfamiliar with the field.
  3. Authority. It's difficult to know whether a piece of content is trust-worthy or not. Social media posts could be true, and they could not. A blog post that seems well researched might not be so well researched. A video could discuss flat-out lies. It is important to know the authority behind the information. For example, Markham Nolan describes a situation where a video is posted, accusing a government of throwing bodies off a bridge to hide their murders. As reporters, they must now figure out if this video is authentic, and represents a true claim, or not. He describes how his team worked through authenticating it.
  4. Bias. It's nearly impossible to convey pure information without any bias. A study, published in Business Insider, shows how our own bias changes our perception. In the study, multiple news sources are checked for trust-ability, and they differentiate how people with different biases perceive the information from multiple sources. Turns out that there are many sources where you can see clear decisions in trust or distrust between the view-point extremes. This tendency to reject information is part of the human condition, but it can easily lead to misinformation.

Proposed solutions that don't solve the problem

Several solutions against being misled have been offered. A typical example comes from Howard Rheingold's book Net Smart, where he presents three steps to verifying information.
  1. "Triangulate," meaning you find three different, unrelated sources to verify any piece of information, because if all three say the same thing, it's much more likely to be true
  2. Look at the stakes the author/creator has. If the person is blogging for free, they are likely to have a lower stake than somebody who's job depends on the accuracy of the information. Often, the one with more to lose will be more reliable.
  3. Use your inner "crap detector." If something seems fishy or off, it likely is. This comes from experience, so isn't terribly helpful if you're new to some topic.
The problem with this approach is that companies and special interest groups know this is what you do. There's a lady who works in media, named Sharyl Attkisson, who gave a TED talk discussing how groups use this approach to create multiple, credible-looking sources of information, but which are not accurate or true. In fact, if you think we can verify information using Howard's three steps, you need to watch her talk:
She suggesting looking for tell-tale signs of planting this information, including:
  • Use of inflammatory language, like prank, crack, psudo, conspiracy, lies
  • Claims to debunk myths that aren't actual myths. This can propagate, fooling some, and convincing those who disprove that myth that they're too smart to fall for it, even though the myth and it's debunking are fabricated.
  • Attacks on people or organizations rather than on the ideas or facts
  • Public skepticism directed at those who question their claim
This, however, doesn't solve the problem. And this is why I'm asking for your help. I have one proposed solution to the spread of reliable, researched information that might help (see separate blog post about that), but won't fully solve the problem. I would like to hear what other ideas you have for actually solving the problem of people believing misinformation.

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