The problem with too much information

Finding the truth

The Problem With Too Much InformThe job of being a citizen — and being a member of Congress — has gotten much harder of late. As sources of information proliferate and “news” not actually grounded in fact grows common on social media, Americans have to work to sort reality from fiction and insight from disinformation.

This is a challenge for our representative democracy. And we’ve only begun to grapple with it.

Why should too much information be a problem? Let’s start with what I consider to be the most important skill in a representative democracy: forging agreement among people who see the world differently. The first step in arriving at a consensus is agreeing on the relevant facts. Without a common base of facts on which everyone agrees — the nature and extent of a problem, whom it affects and how — it’s almost impossible to arrive at solutions that will be widely accepted.

Now think for a moment about today’s information/misinformation environment. Citizens these days get news from religious leaders, special interest groups, talk radio, even late-night comedy shows. In other words, news does not just come from the news media.

And too much of what citizens hear or read today is incorrect or incomplete. Even worse, plenty of sources today cater to a single, narrow political view with no pretense of objectivity.  Their goal is to incite, not to inform. They drive the American people apart, rather than giving us a common base of knowledge we can use to forge agreement.

So what’s to be done? I confess: I don’t know. The moves made by some social media platforms and news organizations to fact-check stories and public claims are important. Broad public awareness that we have a problem to overcome and encouraging critical thinking in schools and in public discourse...these, too, matter.

Still, solving the problem will take a concerted effort. Learning how to seek more diverse views, restoring confidence in public dialogue, finding sources and platforms that win broad acceptance as grounded in reliability and reality — all these will be important.

We live in a time of excessive polarization, mean-spirited politics, and invasive partisanship. Working within that environment to solve these problems is a challenge. I don’t see an answer, but I do see and applaud the individuals and groups beginning to work on it. The future of our representative democracy rides on their success.

 

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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