Knowledge is power, information is liberating! (Kofi Annan)

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Don’t get caught by surprise!

The changing world is changing fast

The world around is constantly changing. The digitalization makes it change faster than could logically be foreseen. Although in the digital age there is more access to information than ever before it is not always clear which information contributes – or not – to autonomous and safe decision-making. In the current environment of (digital) information-overload it gets easier to influence human thinking strategies for decision-making.

Who determines the view of the world

There is a current dynamic in which market, capital, and technological innovation are the driving forces. Next to traditional state powers and international organizations other complex, financial, (sub)cultural, ideological and virtual networks determine the way of the world.

Through the internet and digital innovation more and bigger groups of the population become directly reachable and involved. There are complex information networks and big data-lakes that become partially available to the masses. For a large part we can outsource the filtering of information to the digital giants and the (social) media, which use their own expertise, self-designed algorithms and other innovations such as artificial intelligence. But which information is made available? And how is this information being made available? Who determines this and on what grounds?

Corporations, governments, organizations and a few wealthy individuals gain influence by having access to the big bulk of data, technical innovation and the necessary technical capacity. Data and information become valuable assets, for example consumer or users’ data, block chain technology, artificial intelligence. The physical and digital worlds are melting into one. Therefore, even small local developments can create snowball effects, which can influence on a bigger scale. Booming start-ups, vloggers, the phenomenon of the “Arab spring” are examples.

The objectives of relevant actors are different and don’t always serve the common good. The conscious distribution of fake-news paired with enormous digital spreading undermines our trust in our environment. It becomes more difficult for people to orientate. Complexity and mistrust create fertile ground for isolation of individuals and fragmentation of the society.

Our thinking strategies

The human (cognitive) capacity has never been able to thoroughly process every information received from the environment. For this reason, we as human beings have developed thinking strategies (heuristics). With the help of these heuristics we have learnt to make choices even in an environment with too much information. These thinking strategies are so-called ‘shortcuts’. (for example reacting to the sight of a clear threat). We deal with the available information, with information that seems familiar, information that we want to believe or that we have ‘liked’ before. These short-cuts can be influenced and turn into thinking errors (cognitive biases). Moreover, we developed these shortcuts in a non-digital world.

With the internet a bulk of information is available for everyone within short time. Despite the fact that the information is directly available, the overload of information is bigger than ever. It is vital to verify which information can contribute to choices made for yourself or others. And you have to know how to find this information. This is difficult, it takes time and (too much) effort. So we continue to develop mental short-cuts, that’s how we work. In a way, we are forming our own bubble by using short-cuts in the digital environment. Social media algorithms are an example. Users become more and more convinced of groups that are similar. This way, we cut ourselves off of information which would enrich (and contradict) your view of the world.

Social Engineering and Weaponized narratives

Outdated thinking strategies and the non-understanding of our environment, together with continuous overload of information can lead to passive behavior. A passive attitude can be influenced even more easily. The will to actively obtain information decreases. This can even happen unconsciously or without realizing the seriousness of it. Then, there is a lack to gain knowledge or to counter manipulation, which leads to unjust dependence. You are “owned”. For example, if a cybercriminal leads you to fraudulent acts, without you even being aware of it. In the field of cybersecurity this is called “Social Engineering”.

Overload of (conflicting) streams of information leads to passivity of groups or individuals. The less knowledge there is to deal with information overload the bigger the chance to ignore it or to go with it. On the scale of a mass, the effects are even higher. If such overload is targeted consciously at a group, with the objective to undermine social action, it can be seen as a weapon. Recently, such phenomena are called “weaponized narratives”.

So what?

In the fast and digital world we are even easier to influence. Big (ideological, commercial etc) players are using these techniques, for example targeted advertising, targeted hacking, fake-news, weaponized narratives. Sources of information, such as the internet and other media, are corrupted this way. Our understanding of the environment is decreasing. And understanding is the basis of trust. If understanding is lacking, we cannot expect trust to increase. At the same time, individuals cannot autonomously choose their access to information, while connectivity and access are increasingly important.

From “burying the head in the sand” to complete surrendering. Complexity and mistrust create a fertile ground for isolation and fragmentation.

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