4 Dangers of Information Proliferation
Dangers of our increasing ability to use/spread information are discussed.
Posted Jul 11, 2019
The dark side of information overload has been discussed for years, but in an article published in the May issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Thomas Hills argues that information proliferation—“the capacity to access and contribute to a growing quantity of information”—has a dangerous side.1
One paradox involving internet usage is that Internet “seizes our attention only to scatter it”: Internet users are simultaneously drawn to and focused on the medium (the screen), while “distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”2
Nevertheless, we are not just passive users bombarded by information; we also contribute by producing and sharing information.
And this “we” (the users, sharers, and producers of new content) continues to get bigger. According to the International Telecommunications Union, the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions has increased from under 300 million in 2007 to over 5 billion in 2018.
So billions of people now have the power to access the internet, create content, and (due to technological advances) share and store much more information than ever before in human history.
And because of this level of information proliferation, and exposure to so much more content than we can pay attention to and process, we are now influencing the evolution of information.1
Forces of cognitive selection
The current rapid production and use of information may influence its expansion in two ways.
One, it reduces the time it takes for information to pass between people. Two, it presents a larger variety of content competing for our attention.
What this means is that cognitive selection plays a bigger part in what attracts our attention and what gets passed along. Cognitive selection favors “information that is more likely to be searched for, attended to, comprehended, encoded, and reproduced” (p. 323).1
Let me use an example. Imagine person (P) meets a friend (F) in a quiet coffee shop. Except for the rare distractions, P has no trouble listening to F and tuning out other voices and noises for the whole hour. That is to say, F’s voice is the signal (i.e. useful information) which can be detected easily against the low background noise.
Now imagine P and F meeting in a crowded dance club. There is a lot of background noise (music, loud talking), so P finds it hard to detect the signal (F’s voice). Therefore, in this scenario, P’s cognitive selection play a bigger role as P tries to attend to F’s message while filtering out unwanted disturbance and noise.
Another change that occurs in the club situation involves the signals themselves. People in noisy clubs do not talk as they would in a coffee shop. They shout over the blaring music, make exaggerated gestures, and find other ways to make sure their message is communicated or remembered.
This manner of communication favors certain types of content, including misinformation.
Because misinformation is “freed from the constraints of being truthful.” Therefore, misinformation can more easily “adapt to cognition’s biases for distinctive and emotionally appealing information” (p. 324).1
Recent support for this view comes from an article published in Science, in which Vosoughi and colleagues examined the diffusion of over 125,000 news stories on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, and concluded that false news diffused “farther, faster, deeper, and broader” than true news.3
Four negative consequences of information proliferation
Cognitive selection biases, when combined with information overload, produce a variety of negative outcomes, four of which are briefly described below.1
1. Belief-consistent information
People commonly seek and produce information consistent with their prior beliefs. This inclination gets worse with information overload. On social media, for instance, these tendencies “lead to filter bubbles and echo chambers that further reduce individual exposure to information diversity” (p. 325).1 This results in polarization, and in overconfidence in one’s beliefs.
2. Negative information selection
Human beings pay more attention to negative events—partly because such events have a greater effect on one’s life.4 However, as a consequence of this negativity bias, we are less likely to identify and transmit balanced information. When taken to extremes, the result might be the creation of mass hysteria (see example).
3. Social information selection
Too much social information may lead to herd mentality—bringing one’s thoughts and behaviors into alignment with others. By imitating others’ behaviors, individuals fail to rely on their own judgment. And when we all do that, the same inferior solutions are chosen and the same errors are made by millions and millions of people.
4. Predictive information selection
Due to rapid production of information, spurious correlations (i.e. the assumption that two events are related when in actuality they are not) and mistaken predictions are more likely. Rare events can produce exceptionally positive (or negative) outcomes, and we may mistakenly believe the outcomes are based on reliable associations. When we try to attain these outcomes, we take unwise risks and put ourselves in dangerous situations.
How to prevent the spread of misinformation?
So in this age of rapid information and content production, how can we prevent the spread of misinformation?
While there are no simple solutions, a good first step is to evaluate any piece of information you receive. Just because some new information agrees with your wishes or beliefs does not make it true. And just because two events (be they political, economic, medical, etc) are correlated does not mean one caused the other. Last, keep in mind that a belief espoused by millions can still be wrong, given that many people may not examine pieces of information closely before they transmit it—as is often seen on social media. In short, try to be a critical thinker and a smart user and producer of content.
1. Hills, T. T. (2019). The dark side of information proliferation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14, 323-330.
2. Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359, 1146–1151.
4. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.