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Too Much Information

© Joel Pett

This is a question that has been bugging me for some time. I love the Internet, I make my living from it, and even if I didn’t I couldn’t imagine living without it now. But at the same time, I wonder if on balance, has the Internet has been a good thing for our democracy?

You would think that the free flow of information, including removing the government and corporate gatekeepers to information, would be nothing but good. But instead we suffer from information overload, and there are so many choices of information it is difficult to separate the good information from the lies and propaganda. With so many choices, people seem to mainly view information that reinforces their existing beliefs, leading to further polarization. I suspect that it was no coincidence that the rise in partisanship in Washington was simultaneous with the widespread adoption of the Internet.

This isn’t just true of the Internet. Does anyone believe that cable news networks (and the resulting 24-hour news cycle) provide better information? Before that, did network TV news provide better information than newspapers? Several studies even claim that watching Fox News even makes you less well informed, and yet it is the most popular new source in our country. Is too much information making us stupid?

Even worse, I have no idea what could possibly be done to solve this problem.



  1. just me wrote:

    Information highway?
    We need a WISDOM highway… desperately.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  2. ThatGuy wrote:

    I don’t think too much information can make us stupid, the problem is that much of what we get on televised corporate news and their corresponding websites is either watered down information, extremely soft news (waterskiing squirrels and other cute stories) or plainly misleading editorializing of the news (Fox). Ultimately the issue is that people aren’t discerning when it comes to their sources. The TV no longer sports people like Murrow and Cronkite who would stake their careers on opposing McCarthyism or Vietnam any more than the print news has Woodwards and Bernsteins. Now there aren’t really any journalistic paragons to balance out all the political hacks.

    In short, it’s not information that’s a problem, the problem is that the people tasked with bringing us information do such a poor job.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  3. Dave TN wrote:

    To use a computer term, “Garbage in – garbage out”, the choices are not the problem as is the content chosen. During the pre WWII days people choose to believe something that had loose ties with reality in order to re-enforce their belief that the mess they/we reside in is someone’s else’s fault. The partisanship or lack of cooperation only compounds the problem but sadly it has been encouraged in the voting booth. Those at the reins on the right are pursuing power via a game of chicken with this country’s future and are willing to destroy all in its pursuit, the news media is either an accomplice or a bystander who can’t remember seeing anything at the scene of the crime. The Left seems content with the course steady as we go unwilling to see the iceberg dead ahead in our path but are at least willing to debate the possibility the iceberg could do us harm which I see the lesser of two evils right now. The two sides of the media, which as I see it as part of the problem are not steering us towards resolution but confrontation instead which sells commercial time. Until we get past this we better plan for a path to the liferafts.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  4. starluna wrote:

    I spent the last five months completely unable to engage my normal news-junkie habit. I’m not kidding when I say that I got the majority of my news from a half hour of NPR in the morning taking a shower, from occasional texts from my mom about some celebrity who died, and from Twitter and Facebook. In reality, I really only had the brain-space to handle news that directly related to the subjects I was teaching and that was it. After March, I didn’t even have time to read the Sunday Globe. Not even the funnies. It was that bad.

    Now that I am re-emerging from being buried in work, I am finding that I am also rethinking my relationship to sources of news. I am really trying to think through what I need to know and where to get it. I do find that my network on Facebook and Twitter (and of course, this blog) expose me to news sources that I would not have gone to myself. But what I find more interesting is the conversations that I get into with people who hold different views from mine, even when we are on the same “side” of the political spectrum.

    There’s a certain amount of news I feel like I need to have. But I haven’t yet figured out what my filters are. The only thing I do know is that I have to maintain a healthy amount of skepticism, most especially when the take-away is something that I think I agree with. I feel like I need to take responsibility for what I fill this brain with and for asking questions that I might not otherwise ask. I feel like this news detox has given me an opportunity to be more thoughtful about where I get information and, I suppose more importantly, what inform my opinions.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  5. Scott wrote:

    Both the internet and so-called ‘news’ networks give us exactly what we want: AFFIRMation … not INFORMation.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael wrote:

    “You would think that the free flow of information, including removing the […] corporate gatekeepers to information, would be nothing but good.”

    And therein lies the key to the paradox. Look at the comic again. Facebook, Murdoch, Google, Apple…all corporate. So while Internet pioneers tended to be subversive and favored information flow over profit, that is no longer the case. Reliable independent sources are becoming harder to find…

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  7. ebdoug wrote:

    Try this, then read in further depth in magazines and newspapers.

    And of course, there is always this site and Politfact to keep you sane

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  8. Loray wrote:

    OK, I came to the comments section, armed with a number of responses, but the previous 7 said it all so well, I needn’t try. I do want to affirm what I believe is the common thread among most of the previous comments, however, and that is simply, that the undeniable overload is not necessarily evil, but that the utter lack of effort to discern, question, confirm and consider multiple, possibly conflictive sources is at the heart of the majority who make Fox News their Bible. Said another way, the majority of people are lazy thinkers, preferring to follow, rather than think on their own. Intelligent observers from other nations must shake their collective heads at this. Piers Morgan recently commented on how he is continually amazed at “. . . the stupidity of the American People,” in doing so.

    For the rest of us, like Iron Knee and the other posters, there is a marked sense of being overwhelmed by it all, despite our efforts to weed out the incessant inflow, seeking the substance and the truth beneath it. Hence, sources like NPR, and only a few others, become paramount to truly providing fairness and balance. And even they cannot escape bias, albeit it far, far from the bias of the “fair and balanced” reporting of “Faux News.”

    Scott was correct about people seeking affirmation, not information, in most cases. . . even among those of us who consider ourselves to be seekers of truth. It is why we all return to the same sources for our news. It’s not wrong, however. But even among those of us who scorn the lemming-like loyalty of Fox viewers, we, too, identify with the affirmative leanings of our preferred news sources, Political irony, included. We just are more likely to fact-check, along the way.

    Siiighh… feeling a bit like Chicken Little, at times.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Iron Knee wrote:

    The only thing that keeps me going is that you guy keep me honest, and (rightly) disagree with me when I don’t do the research I should be doing.

    I think that is the fundamental problem. I do this blog for love, and don’t get paid for it. So I only have so much time to spend on it. Versus special interests who seem to have unlimited amounts of time and money (which now counts as protected speech) to spend on promoting their views and interests.

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Starluna: You’re back! I was wondering what happened.

    I find that I use the commentators on this blog for informed positions on the issues that IronKnee raises (especially because I can’t afford even the New York Times, so I have to find out the content of articles by reading how the commentators respond to them).

    I don’t agree with PatroitSTG most of the time, for instance, but he’s no idiot. And I usually agree with Starluna, though our takes are not the same. I look for these, and similar, to help flesh out what sources I do have.

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  11. Dan wrote:

    It is a wonderful thing to have information a google away. Someone sent me a video of a speaker from CPAC, within five minutes I was able to discredit that speaker (and a few more)with a very eloquently written posting on a conservative blog (yes, there still are a few thoughtful reasoned conservatives reaching out)Sure there’s an overload of BS, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need, a sane, reasoned voice.

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  12. Loray wrote:

    “A sane, reasoned voice.”
    Well put, Dan.
    Precisely why I look forward to Political Irony, among other media, who actually back up their comments with references to sources, encouraging fact-checking (or at the very least, pause to just consider the source).
    Draws into question why this is such an anomaly among otherwise intelligent minds of a different leaning.
    Aside, the irony is that lemmings vote.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink