Information toxicity, or why I feel bad about my post on Elliot Rodger the other day

Earlier this week, a friend shared a rather amusing Guardian article on Facebook:

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t much care for mood-altering substances. But I’m not afraid of them either. With one exception.

It’s perhaps the biggest threat to the nation’s mental wellbeing, yet it’s freely available on every street – for pennies. The dealers claim it expands the mind and bolsters the intellect: users experience an initial rush of emotion (often euphoria or rage), followed by what they believe is a state of enhanced awareness. Tragically this “awareness” is a delusion. As they grow increasingly detached from reality, heavy users often exhibit impaired decision-making abilities, becoming paranoid, agitated and quick to anger. In extreme cases they’ve even been known to form mobs and attack people. Technically it’s called “a newspaper”, although it’s better known by one of its many “street names”, such as “The Currant Bun” or “The Mail” or “The Grauniad” (see me – Ed).

In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often “cut” the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria, reheated press releases, advertorial padding and photographs of Lady Gaga with her bum hanging out. The hapless user has little or no concept of the toxicity of the end product: they digest the contents in good faith, only to pay the price later when they find themselves raging incoherently in pubs, or – increasingly – on internet messageboards.

This bit of satire was aimed specifically at a particular recent bit of anti-drug hysteria in Britain, and the point is well-taken, but I might not have given it much thought beyond that if not for two other things. First of all, this past week I happened to read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. One of the main themes of the book is that Taleb doesn’t think he’s any less susceptible to being fooled by cognitive biases than most people—he just arranges his life so as to reduce the odds of being hurt by those vulnerabilities. One example he gives is that he avoids the news entirely. News media, even when the information they report is strictly speaking accurate, focuses on the unusual and the sensational. Taleb doesn’t think it’s enough to know that and read the news with that in mind, he doesn’t trust himself not to be misled, at least subconsciously, so no news for him.

And then there was the Elliot Rodger story. Intellectually, I know that mass shootings are a tiny fraction of all homicides, that their death toll also pales in comparison to suicides, or car accidents for that matter. I also knew that the kind of ideological point-scoring people were engaging in using the shootings is exactly the kind of stupid argument that isn’t worth my time. But it seemed like everyone was talking about it. So I went ahead and wrote about it.

I’m not really embarrassed by the contents of what I wrote—just the fact that I was writing about it at all, against my better judgment. And I know why I did that. It was because of Facebook. The points against the news made by Taleb and the Guardian writer above are perfectly fair, but news media have to at least give the appearance of being scrupulous and objective. Social media on the other hand selects for whatever will generate that instantaneous, fact-check free, share, retweet, or reblog.

This can mean egregious factual inaccuracies, but that’s not even the most interesting case by far. I’ve come to worry more about manufactured outrage, but that’s not even the core of the problem. I mean, the fact that people are outraged about something, that’s information, right? Well, yes—but you’re not getting the disclaimer that they’re really only briefly outraged as a result of being in this outrage-maximizing online environment, and if you ran into them at a party they would probably find they had better things to talk about. So you’re probably better off ignoring their outrage entirely. Trying to draw conclusions from the fact that people are outraged on the internet doesn’t work any better than trying to make them from some extreme outlier news event.

So the issue with the internet is just that it gives us information filtered in an extreme way, unlike anything ever seen before in human history. Our brains didn’t evolve to deal with that. I once heard Robin Hanson say we’re more deluded now than ever before in human history. The suggestion seemed extreme at the time, but I’m now I’m wondering if he’s right.

Like Taleb, I don’t trust myself to be immune to certain things. For several months now, I’ve been trying to make a point to unfollow people who fill my Twitter or Facebook feeds with internet drama clickbaity links (pro tip: you can unfollow people on Facebook without unfriending them). But after last week, it’s not feeling like enough. I don’t want to go to the extreme of quitting Facebook and Twitter entirely—some people I follow post genuinely enlightening links, and there are even surprisingly intelligent discussions that happen. But there are moments where I’m tempted to ban myself from blogs and social media entirely, and limit my internet use to e-mail and online shopping.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com/ vjack

    Great post! I really like this idea of information toxicity and its links to the perpetual state of outrage in which many seem to find themselves. While I haven’t sworn off the news completely, I no longer watch any cable news and try to be careful about the sources I consider trustworthy. It makes me feel a bit silly to admit this, but I have been happier since turning off MSNBC. I’m sure I am less informed about certain politically-oriented stories than I used to be, but I don’t think I’m any less informed about relevant subjects.

    • D Rizdek

      I stopped watching news years…maybe decades ago. I simply can’t stomach the emotion jarring nature of most news shows. It seems to me as if the news became, “what went wrong in the world today.” Lately I don’t find myself watching particularly violent, overly stressful or emotional movies. I have a lot of trouble trying to read history, given the absolutely horrible things humans have done to each other in the name of conquest, “justice,” religion and political ideology.

  • MNb

    I have never joined Facebook and Twitter for various reasons, but I like my blogs. Anyhow I address this problem by
    1. using multiple sources (ao three internet papers and one real paper);
    2. neglecting “news” that reeks of sensation, like the Elliott Rodger story.
    But no news at all? I want to know what happens in Eastern-Ukraine.

    • eric

      Me neither (facebook/twitter). And I do the same for news – mulitple sources. Its interesting that BBC often covers US news better than US papers do. Though that doesn’t work perfectly because very often different papers will buy the same AP or Reuters article, and just edit it differently.
      I find a good rule of thumb is the “48 hour rule.” When some major outrage, scandal, or story starts winding its way through news and internet blogs, ignore it for two days. If its still being covered after that, it may be worth paying attention to. There are going to be exceptions (false negative example: supreme court rulings often have very important consequences but rarely get more than a day of coverage. False positive example: Benghazi), but as a general guideline, its not bad. Moreover, if some issue still outrages you and makes you feel compelled to talk about it after two days of normal life, the chances are good that you have real feelings about it and aren’t just reacting with your gut.

  • BeaverTales

    I’m staying right now in a fairly remote part of Alaska in a house that has no TV (though the option is there), but there is Internet access. It’s a beautiful area of high cliffs, forests and seacoast abutting a small village where people are by and large uninterested in blogs, most outside news events, and read their email only occasionally. Social media is used to share family pictures, texting is used to arrange various rendezvous. Personal tech is otherwise fairly unimportant.

    It’s clean, refreshing and relaxing in many ways. The wildlife viewing opportunities are unmatched. But people are still people: they’re still trying to get laid, trying to get high somehow, trying to get attention, trying to find a thrill or photo-op while on their “vacation of a lifetime”. Most locals spend the entire day doing mundane things like laundry, grocery shopping, auto repair, yardwork and presumably church with the same earnestness we in the technocracy put into daily blogging, reading news and keeping up with the latest whatevers.

    I don’t romanticize these people and their pseudo-atavistic lifestyle. They aren’t any better or worse off than their media-connected urban brethren, just differently preoccupied. It’s good to step away from the information grind, even for weeks at a time…but not having access to it at all isn’t such an amazing life either.

    Like “they” always say, everything in moderation. Taking a break is good, but it isn’t the answer for the long term in nourishing one’s intellect or aiding one’s duty to be an informed citizen.

  • Luke Breuer

    Josef Pieper nailed this in 1974, in his tiny Abuse of Language ~~ Abuse of Power:

    Still, it can hardly be denied that our language through all this indeed progressively loses its character as communication, as it more and more tries to influence while less and less says anything. (24)

    The dignity of the word, to be sure, consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality. Once again it becomes evident that both areas, as has to be expected, are connected: the relationship based on mere power, and thus the most miserable decay of human interaction, stands in direct proportion to the most devastating breakdown in orientation toward reality (33)

    It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight. (33-34)

    Note that the last quotation was written well before the Internet was used by very many people (it was the ARPANET back then, and ARPANET started only in 1969). Pieper lived through WWII in Germany: he knew how language could be completely distorted and used as an instrument of power.

  • Otis Idli

    Bravo! One of the best blog posts I’ve read lately, and a rare voice of reason standing up to the fog of infotainment that cripples the world, creating illusions of democracy and spoon-feeding people their ideological identities. The cloud of infotainment distraction is a great enemy in our world.


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