It’s difficult to separate the vitality of democracy from the vibrancy of the information that fuels it. In their landmark work on political knowledge in America, the scholars Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter made the case that good information is “the currency of citizenship,” a necessary precondition for meaningful political participation. Their concern, articulated in the 1990s, was that despite the normative assumption that information is critical to democracy, most Americans have always been poorly informed. Like financial capital, factual understanding is disproportionately distributed among the population. More recently, this interest in the inequities of information has transformed into a more acute worry about the quality of information—from specious (and strategic) claims of “fake news” to the widespread fear that misinformation is undermining democratic foundations.
To grapple with information necessarily is to consider the medium of its representation. Our assumptions about the democratic role of information were forged in the era of the press, when the circulation of printed documents was the means of public information and newspapers were the central technology of citizenship. This modernist logic would reach its zenith in the mid-twentieth century, a moment of presumed consensus that the function of print-based journalism was to provide an objective accounting of public life that could serve as a resource for individual citizens’ rational decision making. The duty of the citizen was to “follow the news,” while the press was trusted to serve as gatekeeper, managing the representational space. Consider, for example, the longstanding claim of The New York Times that it provides “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” While the institutional effort to determine what information is “fit” to print has always been an exercise in privilege and exclusion, it also regulated the information environment, ostensibly to facilitate the functioning of democracy.
That particular configuration of informational norms and practices, which I and others have referred to as “high-modern,” did not, and indeed could not, last. Print would largely give way to television as the primary means of information, with TV, some have argued, emphasizing the passive consumption of entertainment over active democratic engagement. Compounding the problem, broadcast journalism became increasingly commercialized, transforming from a democratic resource to an economic commodity, designed more to sell advertising than to provide reliable information. The commercialization of news accompanied, and likely contributed to, a rising cultural distrust in traditional journalism and the institutional production of authoritative information more broadly. Both of these forces—economic and cultural—have devastated the local newspaper industry in particular, leading to the collapse of more than 25 percent of all local papers and the drastic expansion of what researchers at the University of North Carolina call “news deserts”—communities both rural and urban that lack “the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”
In place of the morning paper and the nightly news—those journalistic ideals from an earlier era—the information environment has expanded to infinite size. Twenty-four-hour cable channels repackage information into partisan spectacle, while limitless websites mimic the form of news, providing representations of reality in service not of an informed citizenry, but of masked political and economic agendas. All of this, in turn, circulates endlessly via social media, where it intermixes with boundless truth claims whose origins and intentions are difficult and sometimes impossible to determine. The result is an often-impenetrable fog of fact, fiction, and fantasy. Misinformation is by no means an invention of the internet era, but the ease with which it circulates online has led many to worry that “massive digital misinformation” has become “one of the main threats to our society.”
Here, some definitional clarity can help. Rejecting overly facile phrases such as “fake news” and “post-truth,” researchers instead suggest we’re confronting a moment of “information disorder.” To navigate this landscape, we can differentiate between “mis-” and “disinformation.” The former can be understood as factually false claims, often produced and circulated by accident or misunderstanding, but lacking intention to cause harm. By contrast, the latter is disseminated for the purpose of manipulation. While both are problematic, disinformation is the more insidious—strategic, coordinated, and global in scope, intended not simply to advance partisan interests, but often to undermine faith in, and the functioning of, liberal democracy. In turn, researchers are concerned not only with an individual’s exposure to mis- and disinformation, but with the depth of confidence people have in their inaccurate beliefs, and the uses to which they put those firmly held misunderstandings. From this perspective, the “confidently misinformed” voter is a vastly greater problem than the merely uninformed one.
Understandably, then, a great deal of work is being done to intervene in cycles of information disorder, particularly on the supply side. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org, for example, has for some years sought to counter inaccuracies in political speech, while a number of journalistic organizations routinely attempt to hold misinformation and its proponents to account. The research on the efficacy of fact-checking, though, suggests inconsistent results. Research finds some experimental benefit but also the problem that fact-checking can be counter-productive, hardening those confidently held misconceptions. In the context of social media, platforms such as Facebook are struggling to design algorithmic processes of content moderation, flagging and removing misinformation, and also of content mediation, emphasizing and promoting credible information. As of yet, there’s no agreement as to best practices, within or across social media sites. Some researchers suggest that crowd-sourced verification along the lines of Wikipedia, or Reddit’s up- and down-vote system, could provide a partial solution, although they conclude that effective intervention will necessitate a wide range of strategies.
Such supply-side solutions are important, but they cannot address the lingering problem on the demand side: the fact that many people seek out and take pleasure in information that affirms their own sense of self, regardless of its inaccuracies. A narrow focus on facticity neglects the relationships among information, emotion, and identity, and the point that attention to and circulation of mis- and disinformation are as much, and likely more, an outcome of pleasure, belief, and communal affiliation than they are the product of one’s naivety or intellectual vulnerability. Solutions to our contemporary information disorder, therefore, will need to run deeper. One cannot turn the clock back to an imagined earlier era—nostalgia offers no exit—but addressing the problem will require something more than better policing of the informational flow. In the absence of a profound re-invigoration of civic education, a vigorous defense of the institutions of democracy, and a revitalization of the “civil sphere,” a new information order will remain out of reach.