Misinformation & Networks

Miguel del Fresno
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)
Madrid, Spain

Language is never neutral; it determines the way we understand reality and our way of thinking ultimately drives our individual and collective behavior. Language is the mediation technology par excellence between the mind and the larger world in which we interact. The metaphors or linguistic frameworks that mass media, social media, think tanks, lobbies, and activist organizations use create specific perceptions of reality and as such influence our thoughts. These various perspectives can be moved through social systems that have been enhanced and accelerated by technology. The subsequent understandings and misunderstandings then have the potential to multiply and diffuse through relations, communities, and over large-scale networks. This new reality creates an interesting intersection between language, social dynamics, and technology.

The ubiquitous nature of technology continues to play an increasing mediating role in the way that individuals and societies access and perceive reality. The advent of social media created a new ecosystem of communication that has begun to threaten or even destroy traditional media communications, which for a long time held a monopoly on information and its flow. In the current climate both mass and social media cohabitate, creating a new information ecosystem that reflect the emergence of a single social and communication continuum. Within this ecosystem co-exists both information and misinformation, each holding similar status; news stories as much as fake news hold equal sway. This co-existence affects how individuals, communities and societies perceive and understand reality and how people ultimately behave based on their understanding. In this new social continuum, data information, knowledge, and even falsehoods move in a “networked” way.

We all now live in a world where the enormous amount of (mis)information available creates the unprecedented paradox of not being more or better informed, but in fact, actually less. Though this violates the common conception that knowledge is dependent upon the availability of information; it is coming clearer that an abundance of access to information may have the reverse effect. The explosion of information seems to have generated an increased need to make better and more efficient decisions, thrusting the individual into the editorial role. More access to “information” may actually generate the potential for ambiguity, misinformation, and uninformed risk taking. Taken together this creates the conditions for poor decision making, or more arduous decision making, putting the consumer in a position to determine their own truth based on an ever expanding library of sources. This is not occurring just for the average citizen, but also for high level decisions makers tasked with making political, economic, or even for health care.

Often the approaches to making sense of data and (mis)information is idiosyncratic or biased, further exacerbating the potential problem. The interplay of bias and (mis)information gives way to a new level of risk both at the individual and collective level. Within this new communication ecosystem, there exists concurrent streams of incongruous information and misinformation, noises and signals both false and real, news and rumor, the original and the duplicate—all contained within the same bold universe. In this unprecedented time of (mis)information in a global, highly interdependent society, one is left to ask where decision makers should place their focus? Whom to trust when attempting to manage this explosive growth accelerated by the complexity of everyday life reflected and buoyed by technology.

It seems that the oft quoted phrase - “information is power” – is no longer applicable, that the idea must be changed to fit our post-Internet reality. Unfortunately, in a sense, “misinformation is now power” as we seem to be losing our grip on traditional conceptions of “truth”. What was once fact, now seems to carry far less weight, even coming into conflict with what is certainly false. In a slightly unnerving way we now live in a “post-truth era, particularly so after the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in 2016. Both situations were created and furthered by the confluence of fact and fiction, information rampant on both sides of every debate, utilized to further individual ideologies.

To accept misinformation, or worse ignore its existence, will have serious consequences. The increasing complexity of everyday life, due to technological disruptions, is already chaotic and stressful, but that does excuse us from attending to, or even questioning what is put before us. Though it is difficult, it is now necessary more than ever to be more vigilant in questioning sources. Unfortunately however, all too often we do not possess a powerful enough light to illuminate the shadows. Our previous ability to truth-seek no longer seems adequate. As technology and the dissemination of information have evolved, our tools must evolve as well. In some small way our project attempts to do this, bringing light to some of these forces at play. It seems that only a misunderstood relativism, or an explicit strategy of disinformation, can explain the spread of intellectual perversions that we are experiencing on a near daily basis.

When misinformation expands through mass and social media there are no filters, no border or countries, only flows through a global network. Everything circulates with similar speed and it is all equally accessible with only a cursory knowledge of computers, but the consequences are dramatic for individuals, groups, communities, etc. The inevitability of information flow is part of communication progress, but it is also potentially socially destructive. The (mis)information onslaught has begun and show no signs of abating and will have severe consequences for us all. As it stands, there are no indications that the drip of misinformation is dwindling, for it seems that more and more people, events, and groups join in the fraying networked world.

So in moving beyond despair, what is one to do? From our work, having and sharing accurate information is what allows us, as advanced societies, to place limits on uncertainty. Our social, scientific, political, and moral progress, as well as our idea of freedom is grounded in minimizing uncertainty through rationality, evidence and fact. We must remain aware and vigilant that there remains great capacity in networks to produce misinformation and corrode our democratic social contract.

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Misinformation & Networks