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

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Don’t let yourself be surprised!

The changing world is changing fast

The world around is changing. The digitalization makes it change faster than could be foreseen logically. 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

We live in 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 view of the world.

Through the internet and digital innovation more and bigger groups become directly reachable and concerned. Complex information, networks, big data-lakes are present and becomes 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 technical capacity. Data and information becomes more valuable, for example consumer or users’ data, block chain technology, artificial intelligence. The physical and digital worlds are 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 are different and don’t always serve the common good. The conscious diffusion of fake-news paired with enormous digital spreading undermines our trust in our environment. It becomes more difficult for groups to orientate. Complexity and mistrust is 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. We merely react 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 world without digital environment.

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. We continue to develop mental short-cuts, that’s how we work. In a way, we are forming our own bubble by making/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, you cut yourself 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. There then is a lack to gain knowledge or to counter influencing, 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 cyber security 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 players, ideological, commercial are using these techniques, for example 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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