Information helps us make sense of the world. The information we receive shapes what we know and influences how we behave, from the decisions we make, to the causes we support and the beliefs we hold true. If information is how we understand the world, then it’s important that the information we have access to is good: timely, accurate and free from bias.
Good information is an essential part of a functioning society. We need good public health information to combat viral pandemics. We need good economic information to insulate against potential financial shocks. We need good information about the state of modern technology to ensure it can be deployed ethically and regulated effectively.
Good information also moulds the public sphere — the forum for public debate that encourages faith in democratic institutions. Without it there can be no proper discussion of social issues or the formation of rational public opinion.
You could argue then, that a lack of good information undermines democracy — and we’re already facing a dual crisis of lack of access to good information and lack of faith in democratic institutions. These issues are deeply interlinked and are, we believe, made worse by four key barriers:
The volume of information available to us and the ‘always on’ systems that deliver it. Noise impairs our ability to find good information and leaves us more vulnerable to the next three barriers.
The tendency of systems to not conform to simple narratives and therefore to be hard to understand. Global systems like those relating to the environment, politics, law, finance and culture, are all complex and constantly increasing in complexity. More information than ever before is now required to understand the world we inhabit.
The intentional production of false information by various ‘bad actors’ (governments, corporations, media organisations and individuals) for financial or political ends. Misinformation takes advantage of noise, complexity and polarisation to further confuse and frustrate us.
The increasing divergence of public opinion into two opposing camps of political beliefs, driven by a complex network of factors. Polarisation halts progress on some of the world’s most complex problems by preventing compromise and collaboration between both sides of the political divide.
In 2009, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy concluded that information is, “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health”.
We can’t say with objective certainty that information pollution is the direct result of a decline in local news media, the responsibility of social media platforms, the consequence of the normalisation of lying in government or the failure of schools and universities to reflect the changing shape of our world in their teaching. More likely it’s a combination of all of the above, and myriad other factors. What we can say for certain is that in the absence of good information, the systems we have traditionally relied on to create stability have been damaged and undermined. So what’s to be done?
In his foreword to our Weapons of Reason book, Tim Brown wrote that, “We need more ways to communicate the complexity, nuance and interconnectedness of complex issues, to bring a greater level of awareness to them that allows everyone to engage with them effectively. Rarely have there been attempts to bring large amounts of insight together in one place in a way that allows equal access to different people with different perspectives on the world.
We must continue to develop new modes of communication and storytelling which can express, reveal and interrogate the true nature of complex systems. Without that, we have no hope of responding to them or revolutionising them in the right way.
He’s right, but communicating about complexity is just one strand of the work that needs to be done to provide more equal access to good information and address the barriers that currently keep it out of reach. We also need to better understand the psychological processes at play when we engage with information in different contexts.
Doing so will help us to interrogate the motives of the governments, corporations, media outlets, NGOs, charities, think tanks, brands, individuals and other less easily definable entities that compete for our attention each day, to acknowledge the effect our various devices have on our ability to hold information, and the influence of all of the above on the information we share.
There are many individuals and organisations campaigning for clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health in communities around the world. But the global systems that affect our information landscape are ill-defined, hard to understand and even harder to address directly. Yet we must address them. And those of us working in communications shoulder the responsibility to do so — at the very least because information chaos makes our jobs that much harder, and at worst because we risk becoming complicit in perpetuating the problem if we don’t.
In a world where good information is harder than ever to come by, the ability to assess, understand and impart knowledge is a necessary survival skill. The first step towards accessing good information is to first understand how our information systems became so corrupted in the first place.
This series will explore and explain the roots and intersections of these barriers and offer some ways to take control of our information landscape and restore a healthy public sphere.