Why people may be better-informed than ever before

In the 2020 post “A post-truth era? Why Americans may be better-informed than ever,” I argue that despite the ‘fake news’ meme and ‘disinformation’, that technology and social media makes it easier for people to be informed. This is somewhat in agreement with articles by Scott Alexander and Richard Hanania defending the media as being accurate.

But it’s not just the media in a vacuum–it’s the interplay between the media and independent commentators such as on Twitter, in which fact-checking process is expedited and crowdsourced, so the odds of having the ‘correct’ version of a story increases with the passage of time through this iterative, crowd-based editing process.

This does not mean that the news is always accurate, good, or true, and of course there are biases. There are obvious blunders such as the media hyping up Iraq War, the tendency of the media to downplay crime that does not fit certain narratives or to run with other narratives, or the seeming media groupthink regarding the suppression of lab leak theories of Covid.

But starting from having no opinion or knowledge of an issue or story, just reading a comment thread and a few headlines can get someone up to speed very fast as to the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of a debate, as well as the pertinent details. Such as when there is a mass shooting, for example, people turn to CNN, even conservatives. It’s not like you have to wait for Walter Cronkite to report on it. Or are limited to NYTs or WSJ op eds, which are biased.

Consider that:

1. The rise of real-time online fact-checking means that stories can be edited at record speed, within hours or even minutes, instead of having to wait days or weeks for the paper to publish a retraction.

2. Social media and forums allow for corrections and inaccuracies to be identified by astute commenters, which are then algorithmically promoted to the top, beneath the parent comment/post, and visible to all. Decades ago, this was not possible and inaccuracies were not as easily challenged. Its like Cunningham’s law in overdrive. Experts are surprisingly fallible and are afflicted by many of the same biases and fallacies as observed with non-experts, and their words, even when printed in prestigious publications, should not be taken as gospel.

It’s not uncommon for an ‘esteemed expert’ with a long list of credentials have his or her argument taken apart by astute commentators, which are then algorithmically promoted to the top, as I have seen on Reddit and Hacker News many times. For example, a month ago the article How America Manufactures Poverty went viral, but the highest-rated comment disputed the premise, as the author overlooks transfer payments when assessing poverty:

The included Vox article shows that poverty in the US is more complicated or nuanced than the partisan generalizations often let on. It depends how poverty is measured, and also the distinction between absolute vs. relative poverty.

3. High-stakes elections and politics means both sides are incentivized to intensely fact-check the opposing side (so-called “ideological point-scoring”). This is especially seen on Twitter. It’s no coincidence that one-party states are notorious for having extremely biased, inaccurate, or censored media. Even if voters are shown to not be persuaded by facts, being right is still seen as important.

4. More diversity of viewpoints. Having more information does not necessarily mean being misinformed, and being informed does not mean only listening to one side. For stories like Covid, in which there is no definitive right or wrong answer about the origins of the virus or mask efficacy, having more information to draw upon is beneficial in the same way consumer choice and product reviews are beneficial. The mistake is assuming something is settled and not up for debate–except for ‘hard sciences’ or math–very little is ever settled, and even scientific theories can be challenged or revised.

5. The world wide web and hypertext allows for sources to be embedded seamlessly in articles, instead of having to take the author’s word for it, or having to look up footnotes at the library. Anyone can verify a source by simply following the link.

Overall, as much as both sides complain about fake news and misinformation, such a vetting process did not exist half a century ago: the media’s word was the final (and often the only) word. The experts gave their side of the story, and that was it.