Depolluting the information ecosystem

Thanks to the internet, our information ecosystem is bigger than ever — but it is becoming polluted and may already be toxic. How do we become the solution, not part of the problem?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

WIRED is launching a new column called Information Ecosystem, and the opening article is a powerful one. It’s written by Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, and she has many things to say about the way social media, journalism and misinformation interact to create a deeply polluted ecosystem.

In particular, she finds hope in journalists who are beginning to realise that the traditional way of doing things is, often, making things worse. Why? Because the misinformation merchants are relying on amplification from the mainstream through reporting on their work — even if it’s an attempt to debunk it. Sometimes disinformation thrives and grows in the light:

These tenets of journalism remain entrenched in subtle and explicit ways across many newsrooms. Some reporters will never let them go. But I’ve found that more and more people, at more and more publications, have been willing to look around, see all the devastation, and ask: If everything we believe about journalism is true, then why has none of it been working? The healthy response to this question is anxiety; paradigms hurt when they shift.

This blog has become a sort of near two decade record of that pain. It's been shifting away from the enthusiasm and frustration of 15 years ago, when the potential of digital seemed so great, and the conservatism of the industry so inexplicable. Now? It’s all anxiety and depression, as I find myself slipping into chronicling all the problems, but not spending nearly enough time on the solutions.

A necessary anxiety

That anxiety — and low level depression about the state of media — has been one of the reasons for patchy content on here. But, as Phillips argues, that anxiety might be a good thing, and going quiet in the face of it might be entirely the wrong response:

The kind of anxiety I’m describing is the north star guiding ships onward. At least it can be, when the worry itself is reframed and harnessed toward the common good. Because what is it, other than an awareness of consequence and connection? What is it, other than the recognition that things should be different? There is no yearning for a better world when there are no guiding stars. They are a necessary precondition for meaningful change.

I think that Phillips’ central thesis that journalism is exacerbating the information pollution, not easing it, is sound. We are being played, and bad actors are successfully using the habitual methods of journalism to spread their ideas as we slip back into poor forms of “both sides” journalism. That needs to change.

This is an area where just reporting on the issue won’t be enough. Writing about misinformation does not make it go away — and often just ends up as a carrier for the misinformation viral payload to reach a wider number of people. We, as the media, are part of this information landscape, and we are participating in the pollution of it. Maybe not intentionally — but many of the worse environmental pollution disasters weren’t intention either, and that’s no excuse for continuing as if nothing had changed.

The first step towards a solution is admitting that you have a problem

The journalism profession seems very deeply reluctant to admit to itself that it needs to change profoundly to cope with the new landscape. I have a lurking anxiety — yes, that word again — that behind some of the current shift towards subscription models lies an assumption that you can just throw up a paywall and go back to doing exactly what you were doing before. That won’t work. The people who have been most successful at it understand that there is a subtle, but important, distinction between paywalls and subscription models.

We've been there before. Part of the reason Facebook has such a stranglehold on journalism is that we abandoned our own attempts to build communities, outsourced all that to Facebook, and went back to doing exactly what we were doing before. Let's learn from that mistake.

Anyway, back to Phillips:

Meaningful change is still possible, Estés says, as “an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.” We invite it when we stretch out to mend the part of the world within our reach. We invite it when we do what small, calm things we can to shine light from our own decks, and draw strength from the lights of others. Most important of all, we invite it when we cast our eyes starward and keep going.

Second star to the right, and straight on to morning, folks.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.