The “Illusion of Knowing” and other ways technological innovation is affecting our values

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Blue feed/red feed, courtesy of the Washington Post graphics (http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/)

Of the many things that this election has highlighted – of which many, more qualified voices than mine have discussed, such as the impact of our words and racism in America – one that I did not consider until recently was the impact of technological innovation upon American values.  As much as humans have changed and shaped technology, the resulting advances have, in turn, changed and shaped the people that use them.  In particular, the internet is changing the extent of privacy, the nature of our democracy, and the responsibility to find truth by offering anonymity, access to information, and removal of traditional filters of information.

The power to be an anonymous agent is raising questions about how far privacy – the power of an individual to decide who has access to their personal information[i] – should extend.  On the one hand, anonymity offers the ultimate way to preserve privacy by offering ultimate protection and control over personal information.  Anonymity is a useful tool for whistleblowers – such as the anonymous source of Trump’s tax returns and Wikileaks – to report potential abuses of power without fear of reprisal.  Although one can make the valid and reasonable argument that these reveals by anonymous sources are good for transparency and accountability in government, I had to ask myself the question of whether and how much privacy our political leaders are entitled to.  Anonymity, after all, can be used to maliciously destroy someone else’s reputation and to avoid responsibility for the consequences of our words and actions, as for internet trolls, who send vitriol or worse to poor souls who have angered them or just for “laughs.”  I am not the only one who is thinking about these questions; a study by the Pew Research Center has highlighted the deep divides on privacy and that people are most willing to relinquish privacy in the name of security.  But what are we willing to justify in the name of national security?  What do we have the right to know, and when do we not need to know?  The action item here is to debate and formulate laws that govern privacy online rather than the patchwork of laws that we currently have.[ii]

At its core, the internet was built to and continues to provide information and connect people.  The availability of information gives Americans something scholars term the “Illusion of Knowing,” in which people think that having access to information means they comprehend a topic when they have not.  Compared with other countries, Americans tend to be reluctant to delegate authority, and this reluctance is worsened with the impression that people can understand the nuances of an issue by having access to information on the internet.  This reluctance and the unprecedented access to governance through the internet are slowly pushing our democracy from representative – in which we delegate authority to representatives to make decisions, to populist – in which people make decisions in law-making.  The practicality of such a shift is still under debate, but the internet has made a populist democracy feasible. [iii]  Unfortunately, the internet is not free.  Even libraries require transportation to and from, and a role in governance may be out of reach for the very people who need a voice in the government the most.  How do we give access to the people who are suffering under economic policies besides elections?  Should we be?

An even more pressing problem than access to information now is the quality of information that people see.  As well as giving people the opportunity to speak, the internet connects people with others who are receptive to the words they want to say and helps people mobilize.[iv]  For instance, it gives queer individuals a chance to find others like them and realize that they are far from alone.  It gives members and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement a way to organize and disseminate information.  It gives environmental activists a way to discuss the latest scientific advances and debate different ways to combat climate change or invasive species.  On the other hand, it also gives people ways to contact or form hate groups/supremacist groups that want to cause harm.  A famous example is the spread of propaganda and cyberattacks by ISIS through the internet.  This aggregation of people who have similar viewpoints tends to confirm our opinions and points of view.  Studies have shown that 62% of Americans got their news from social media, like Facebook.  Taking Facebook as the example, the news on a person’s newsfeed depends on their friends.  Liberals tend to see news that is more liberal and conservatives, more conservative (blue vs. red feeds).  What gets lost, however, is the point of view of the other side.  Moreover, just adding more information to our news feeds will not necessarily open our viewpoints because of confirmation bias, where we emphasize and remember information that confirms opinions that we already held.

The immediate challenge to deal with is that the “news” people see is not always real.  38% of news on conservative leaning sites was found to be false, as was 19% of news on liberal sites.  Mark Zuckerburg has come under fire for Facebook’s role in spreading false news.  It’s true that Facebook does not actively promote false news, but some on Facebook are there to build media companies and followings rather than seeking the nuanced truth of news.  How much responsibility does Facebook have to fact-check news/memes being shared and how much is our responsibility to do the fact-checking ourselves?

With these changes in American values, I think that it is my duty, as for every person who wants a better and safer world, to fact-check and stop the sharing of false information, and the first step is to report false news when we see it on Facebook.  I also owe it to my fellow humans to listen to stories and search for truth among the noise before I form an opinion and to combat my own confirmation bias as much as I can.  Why do I owe this to my fellow humans?  Because as our democracy shifts from representative to populist and I have more of a voice in law-making, I think it is important to be informed and advocate for policies that will benefit the most number of people.  It’s certainly what I would want and expect from others.

[i] National Acaderny of Sciences (ed.) (2001). Global Networks and Local Values. A Comparative Look at Germany and the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

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