Too Big to Be True

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the problems around information production and dissemination are in contemporary times. The go-to example for this is fake news, but it’s a bad example. Fake news is a real problem that has real effects, but most fake news is written in such a way that a discerning reader can tell they should be wary. My impression there is that the problem is people want to point to fake source to prove their point or get a response, which is a sociological issue that can’t be solved with simple censorship, which is essentially what the term “fake news” begs as its solution.

My opinion is that the issues in information consumption revolve around how the information streams of individuals draw from have problematic compositions. The echo-chamber effect, where people are only being exposed to media produced by like-minded people, is the extreme version of this, but I think we can break-down the component issues into:

  1. finding information an individual can trust to be reasonably complete for the given subject.
  2. making sure that the stream of information you consume doesn’t categorically ignore subjects that will have bearing on either an individual’s life or the other subjects you care about.
  3. making sure that when an individual encounters statements they aren’t predisposed to throw it out as non-trustworthy.

The last one is the hardest, and I’ll focus on it here, because I think there’s a fundamental issue blocking the existence of sources that are trusted across group boundaries. Consider information-disseminating Organization X:

  1. Organization X becomes big enough or draws enough attention that it now has whistleblowers.
  2. Whistleblowers’ claims are often hard to verify, since they are locked-up in internal details. As they accumulate, Organization X loses legitimacy most among the people who are not predisposed to believe its findings.
  3. Eventually, the findings Organization X are cited only by those who already firmly believed in the given statements, cementing its failure to bridge any kind of gap.

The usual defense against this—which is not that common since most organizations just lean-in to a specific sector as hard as possible—is to try to disseminate ideas that fit multiple different audiences point’s of view. What seems to happen in practice, is that various interesting groups will say “Organization X certainly got issue A right, but I can’t quite trust them because of issue B.” If A and B have the same level of suspicion from independent sources it will not make a difference, because these sources are naturally viewed as extensions of their claims and thus as biased if they don’t agree with a group’s predispositions.

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