By Aleksander Dardeli
Every day, our world produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, the equivalent of 250,000 Libraries of Congress, much of it information generated and disseminated via social media by people like you and me. It is increasingly clear that the news media no longer have a monopoly on the generation and dissemination of the information we consume. Between now and 2020, the majority of data will be produced by machines that talk with one another. The impending dominance of machines in the production of data will further accelerate the rate at which the information universe is expanding.
Resigned to the fact that machines are taking over data creation, and exasperated with so-called fake news, many are looking for artificial intelligence solutions to the problem of low quality information or disinformation. Facebook and Google are designing artificial intelligence “trust indicators” to help us spot low integrity information and consume quality sources instead. Given the vast amount of junk that circulates in the information universe, we can use any help we can get. There is clearly a need for more effective artificial intelligence tools.
However, technology is rarely if ever a full solution to any problem. Indeed, looking only to artificial intelligence to ensure we consume healthy information is a short-sighted recipe for failure. Facebook and Google are the information flood. Designing better algorithms on these platforms will not prevent us from drowning. And there will always be nefarious persons, organizations, or governments that will try to, and may successfully, out-Facebook Facebook or over-Google Google.
The most effective solutions are those that focus on people: building skills for finding quality information and consuming it critically. The ultimate compass for navigating the information universe is the human mind. Information consumption skills take time to cultivate. While this may sound less sexy than an artificial intelligence panacea, make no mistake, the stakes in choosing where to place our bets could not be higher. We need to ensure that future generations never abdicate (to artificial intelligence, organizations, or governments) their responsibility for critical thinking.
Critical thinking is indispensable to constructive participation in community life, civic initiatives, politics, and the marketplace. Free citizens, good neighbors, and savvy consumers are neither born that way, nor become accidentally so. They must be nurtured through education, trial and error.
Good, vibrant information is more important than ever. It is an indispensable ingredient of democracy, effective government, and economic prosperity. Without vibrant information, the framework of rules, institutions and organizations in which modern life and democracy exist may collapse.
Finding and consuming high integrity information is becoming ever more difficult. Indeed, the information pollution the US is experiencing with fake news, which is essentially low-quality or intentionally misleading information, is the frenetic proliferation of problem that has been around for years in many parts of the world.
Children and youth will bear the long-term consequences of polluted information. By giving them access to mobile devices and computers, we have thrown them to swim in the equivalent of rough information seas without teaching them the survival skills they need. Content safeguards resemble erratic sandbags trying to contain the flood. They blind us to the bigger picture: our children will be soon at the mercy of the waters. We must act now to teach them survival skills.
We need a renaissance of thought leadership, advocacy, and investment in building critical thinking skills and especially critical information consumption skills. Emerging initiatives for building information literacy skills show promise but remain paltry and sporadic.
A more systemic approach would focus primarily on children and youth. This would mean creating curricula and standards in schools across the country that teach students not what to think or read but how to do so. It would also mean that these programs become a permanent part of what we teach our children and youth.
Such curricula should focus on selecting and verifying information sources, detecting censorship or advertorial content, avoiding emotional manipulation and confirmation bias, identifying hate speech, debunking news, photos, and videos, and, as youth mature, understanding the political economy of information.
This requires investment in developing and teaching curricula and measuring the results of these programs. However, given the stakes at play, it is a rather modest investment. If we truly embrace the maxim that good information is the currency of democracy, we must put our money where our mouth is.
Aleksander Dardeli is Executive Vice President of IREX, a global development and education nonprofit organization.