We live in the Information Age – the present time in which “large amounts of information are available because of developments in computer technology” (1). In 2021, communication technology and the ease with which we can access information has advanced beyond recognition. Not only this: the amount of time that we spend consuming information and communicating through technology has increased. According to a 2019 study, American teenagers (13 -18 years old) spend an average of almost nine hours a day on screen media, not including time spent using screens for school and homework (2). Depending how many hours of sleep you’re getting, that’s a fairly significant portion of your waking hours spent in front of a screen. And why not? Everything is digital (3). But what does this mean for those of us living through it, particularly during a global pandemic? What are we giving up in order to spend so much time on a screen?(4)
Imagine it’s 30 years ago. It’s 1991. You’ve just heard some incredibly exciting news. What do you do with it? You could call your friends (assuming your sister isn’t using the landline all evening). Maybe you’ll even be able to set up a three-way call and tell two of them at once. You might have to wait until the next day to tell them at school, unless you want to run down the street to where they live and let them know, one by one. Or perhaps you’ve just had a mind-blowing insight about a story you saw in the newspaper. How can you share your opinion with the wider world? Writing a ‘letter to the editor’, with the hopes of it being published, is probably your only option at this point. Things are looking a little limited.
Skip forward to 2021, and communication technology is vastly different. Want to share some information with the world? No problem. Pick any social media channel and go from there. Add a few hashtags and hope for the best. Make a TikTok video – maybe it’ll go viral. Whatsapp all your friends. We are no longer restricted to one conversation at a time, with one other person. You could be on your phone, messaging a friend, replying to a comment from someone else on social media, catching up on a group text, answering a FaceTime call – all pretty much simultaneously. Communication technology now provides us with information 24 hours a day. Breaking news alerts. Videos to watch about the latest world events. Messages from our parents. Updates from our friends. Gone are the days when access to information and research was reserved for those with admission to university libraries – everything is just a click away.
Thanks to technology – more specifically, the Internet – we can now receive, generate and share information more quickly than ever before. Unlike the cost of publishing or buying books, the internet has made it cheap (usually free!) to create and share information with other people. Technology has enabled anybody with access to the Internet to be part of the discussion. Think of your parents or grandparents. Their opportunities for having their voice heard amounted to shouting at the TV, complaining to their neighbour or, if they were really serious, heading down to their local politician’s office to provide feedback in person. Nowadays, options abound. You can engage in a Twitter conversation with the real people involved in a political decision or react to a news story in the comments section. You could make a YouTube video about a cause you feel strongly about, or start an online petition to help provoke change. Any opinion you may have can be put together in less than a minute and shared with the wider world. It’s no longer a matter of those with power and influence (politicians, media moguls, even celebrity spokespeople) simply providing information to their audience; we now have very real opportunities to voice our own opinion and actively question the information that we encounter. We’ve come an incredibly long way from yelling our thoughts at newscasters on the radio. And yet, if anyone can broadcast their beliefs, does this begin to invalidate the opinions of those that we should, in theory, trust – scientists, the medical community, mainstream media? Are the tools provided to us by technology making it harder to hear the experts over the sound of everyone else’s voices?
Behind the scenes, there is a whole world of technology working alongside (and against) us. Algorithms(5) have a huge influence on the type and quality of information we see and read online. Take TikTok, for example. In 2020 they released a statement explaining how their algorithm works: “The system recommends content by ranking videos based on a combination of factors — starting from interests you express as a new user and adjusting for things you indicate you’re not interested in, too.” (6) Just check out the Explore tab on your Instagram or TikTok and see how accurately your algorithm can predict what you want to see. All the information that you provide online is being used to generate content (suggested pages, ads for products you may want to buy) tailored very personally to you. By funnelling us information based on our existing interests and opinions, websites are successfully reaffirming “what we think we know” (7). In this way, we risk passively receiving what websites want us to see and hear, rather than using the information and communication tools at our disposal to actively develop a broad, well-informed view of the world (8). Perhaps technology is a double-edged sword, both helping and hampering our ability to be active recipients of information.
Studies have shown that people tend to consume information that matches their pre-existing opinions(9), both in person and online. This is called confirmation bias. “We search for and remember things that fit well with what we already know and understand,”(10) helping to confirm our existing beliefs about anything from vaccinations to a rumour about a celebrity. Confirmation bias encourages us to embrace information that endorses our opinions and ignore that which might contradict it. Communication technology, by predicting our interests and behaviour, increases our confirmation bias, often in damaging ways(11). While it’s a great feeling to find other people who agree with you, these biases can take away our ability to challenge what we think we know: “Being a permanent prisoner of confirmation bias involves the greatest loss of all: the loss of the freedom to make conscious, responsible choices for our own life based upon trustworthy, informed, and accurate information.”(12) When people with possibly dangerous opinions discover that those opinions are shared and endorsed by resources online, technology is validating their misinformation. Not only this, it is also providing them with the tools to continue to share what they think they know, potentially with an enormous, worldwide audience.
And don’t forget about bots(13). Bots are everywhere(14), creating and sharing false information, often by pretending to represent people from our in-group(15). Bots are a huge part of how easily information – especially disinformation(16) – can spread. Real life examples of this range from the bizarre (just Google Hillary Clinton’s ‘Pizzagate’ scandal during the 2016 US presidential election)(17) to just plain destructive – a 2020 study found that nearly half of all tweets related to Covid-19 were sent by bots spreading misinformation.
Let’s compare the spread of information online to Covid-19. A student tests positive for Covid-19. They pass the virus on to three other people, who also pass it on to three other people. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Except when you reach the tenth layer at that infection rate, the original student has been responsible for infecting around 59,000 people.(19) Now, imagine if instead of Covid-19, the student has a piece of information – an incorrect piece of information – about the dangers of Covid-19 vaccinations. They share this information with three people, who share it with three more people, and so on, until the false information has spread throughout the student’s community and, thanks to technology, far beyond. And what if, instead of a student, it’s a bot deliberately spreading false information – consider the impact and power of that. Unlike scientific articles, published after many stages of review and criticism, there is very little opportunity to control the quality of information on the internet and how far it spreads (no wonder we refer to memes and stories going ‘viral’). The more you hear a piece of false information, the weaker your resistance to it, and the more susceptible you are to believing it(20). Information on the Internet is “competing to infect us.’’(21) We have to be wary of this, especially when the end result could be people choosing, for example, not to get vaccinated and falling seriously ill with Covid-19 as a result. Poor quality information may lead to poor quality decisions(22) which could affect us for the rest of our lives.
If we remain passive recipients of information rather than actively engaging with the information we receive, we will continue to fall into the trap (set for us in part by technology itself) of only consuming content which we already agree with. Our knowledge and world view has to be able to withstand tests and challenges. It is up to us to impose those tests, and to recognize the influence that technology has on how we view the world. How can we find ways of accessing views that challenge us? The beauty of the Internet means that if something sounds hard to believe, you can check the information on any number of other websites(23). Technology has given humans an enormous amount of power – the ability to communicate, send and receive information like never before. It has inspired incredible inventions (think about the fact that medical technology brought us a vaccination against Covid-19 in less than a year!). And yet it also disempowers us by helping us to confirm what we think we already know, rather than encouraging us to challenge our preconceptions.
All is not lost, however. We all have the tools and ability to be critically aware in the face of information and communication technology, rather than a sponge, absorbing content without reflecting on it. Do the work and challenge what you read and learn: where is the information coming from – an individual or an organization? What type of organization? Do they use references and reputable sources? Are they speaking in sweeping generalities? Look at this article – what have I done to persuade you? As Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo points out, “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can find out.”(24) Maybe it’s time to really use technology and check the facts.