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.

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