Critical Information Consumption is Vital to the Future of Democracy: A Paradigm Shift from Media Development to Creating Vibrant Information

Information Center by Masayuki Takaku (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Aleksander Dardeli, Executive Vice President of IREX

Information may be the world’s most valuable asset. Indeed, it is an essential good that is critical to democracy and the workings of prosperous societies. People need high-quality news and information in order to take actions that will improve their lives, hold those in power accountable, and create a culture of rights and inclusion.

Yet, despite its indispensability to democracy, information rarely attracts the attention of policy makers in a way that other issues – fossil fuels, the stock market, security – do. Moreover, when it does, policy makers often rehash outdated thinking.

To be sure, it is good information that is highly valuable to democracy, and more so than ever. By some estimates, the amount of information we produce in 48 hours in 2017 is equal to the entire volume of information created in all human history prior to 2003. This vast universe of information makes the accurate processing of information a key challenge of our time.

For decades, talking about information was equivalent to talking about media. Much of the West’s thinking about media went like this: if we are able to create and sustain independent media, professional journalists will produce good information. This good information will reach the people who need it and they, in turn, will use it to make sound decisions.

In the face of proliferating data and information, technology-created content, fake news, and disinformation wars, this thinking now looks hopelessly inadequate.

Traditional media – broadcast, print, web-based – is, and will remain, a key piece of the information landscape. However, it is one actor in a vast array of actors that include people like you and me, artificial intelligence programs, and troll factories in Russia that use trained people and special technology to run thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to flood social media with disinformation and propaganda. We can no longer rely on a single actor to ensure the quality of information generated and shaped by a multiplicity of actors.

How we create information of high integrity needs a different outlook, one that shifts our thinking from a supply-driven approach (i.e. led by media outlets) to looking at information as an outcome of the actions of many actors: media organizations, technology, and people. We need a paradigm shift toward prizing and supporting vibrant information.

Critical Consumption of Information is Key

For information to matter, it must lead to an action by its consumer. This paradigm shift demands that we focus on the consumer, not just the media. Critical information consumption skills are indispensable to ensuring the future of democracy and well-functioning and fair markets. Such skills go to the heart of a culture of respect for human rights, rational decision-making, space for minority views, access to opportunity, and individual initiative – all of which are needed for democracy to flourish.

Demand Shapes the Information Markets

How information is created, disseminated, or consumed is relational. In other words, human relationships shape decisions we make about the content we create, how we disseminate it, and how we digest and use it. People’s demand and consumption of a certain kind of news, including fake news, is shaped by the economic, political, cultural, and social forces of their communities. Millennials are twice as likely as baby boomers to prefer getting their information from people that they know, which spotlights the relational dimensions of information. Understanding these forces and how people relate to them is crucial to generating vibrant information.

As the Information Universe Expands, National Borders are Increasingly Irrelevant

Traditional national frontiers have become irreversibly porous and, often, meaningless in how information travels from community to community. Russia can hack into the computers of the Democratic National Committee and set in motion a series of political and social tremors. The resurgence of populism cannot wall out information that comes from other parts of the world. CNN, RT and Aljazeera are one click away – whether you are in Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Kenya, or the United States.

More Market Disruption for Better Information

Advertisement-based business models that have sustained traditional media since the end of World War II have been irreversibly disrupted. This process of disruption has created powerful actors such as Google and Facebook. Often, their goal is confused with that of the independent media. They are, however, largely indiscriminate content creators and undiscerning disseminators without the ethical and professional standards framework of the independent media. Sporadic revivals of the old models are just exceptions that prove the rule. Vibrant information requires innovative business models and approaches. The same forces of disruption that spelled the end of the advertisement-based business model should be harnessed to introduce yet a new wave of disruption that will fuel the creation of vibrant information.

Technology is both Friend and Foe

Technology represents both a boon and a threat. More than 60 percent of American get news from social media, and that is, largely, a good thing. However, the fact that 30 percent of all fake news traffic can be linked back to Facebook is troublesome. It also underscores that new tools are needed to harness the power of technology for vibrant information and that new rules – ranging from ethical guidelines to new legal norms – are needed to make technology platforms engines of human development, rather than hatred and deceit.

To map a path out of this crisis, media professionals, civil society, policy makers and the philanthropic community interested in vibrant information must begin by anchoring their attention to independent media in a broader approach that is focused on information.

Four Key Ingredients

The key ingredients of this approach are: content that matters, multiple dissemination channels, critical engagement with content, and transformative action.

Content that that is accurate, complies with ethical norms, and is highly relevant to people in their daily lives. Media has an important role to play in generating such content, but we must also work with many other content creators, from citizen bloggers to artificial intelligence organizations.

There is a link between limited means of distributing content and the lack of a free press, which in turn indicates a democratic deficit. A multiplicity of distribution channels helps create the space for competition of ideas and critical thinking.

But the most important part of this new approach is investing in durable skills to consume information critically. Critical thinking may seem unglamorous, but those who ignore it do so to the detriment of democracy, inclusive societies, and human prosperity.

A plethora of factors affects how content that matters and critical thinking lead to wise decisions that benefit people and communities. There is no direct link between critical thinking and good decisions, but critical thinking is a precondition to transformative action. Media practitioners and democracy promoters alike must invest more in understanding the complexity of the relationship between information, critical thinking, and behavior.

Don’t Just Agree, Invest

Information is critical to democracy. Current investment levels in media development are woefully inadequate. We cannot just talk about how critical vibrant information is to democracy as we watch fake news proliferate and disinformation machines being built by authoritarian countries. Ensuring vibrant information requires an investment that is proportional to the challenge. It requires not only additional investment in strengthening independent media, but also in other actors and platforms that generate, disseminate, and consume vibrant information.

Aleksander Dardeli is Executive Vice President of IREX, a global nonprofit organization that works to strengthen good governance and access to quality information and education.

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