Paul Cook is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University Kokomo, where he researches problematic information and its effects on how we learn, know, work, and play in the digital era. Dr. Cook recently co-hosted a series of webinars on digital literacy, pandemic pedagogy, and deliberative democracy through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He is also involved in the American Democracy Project’s Digital Polarization Initiative and is a founding member of IU Kokomo’s award-winning Mind over Chatter team, which designs innovative curriculum based on cognitive psychology and mindfulness techniques to help train students to be better consumers of digital media.
The web and social media have become absolutely central to how we learn, work, play, share, and communicate in the post-digital era. Nearly everyone has heard of “fake news,” but fewer people are aware of digital information plenitude, which refers to the sheer proliferation of information and the super-abundance of perspectives in online environments. The overload we experience daily impacts democratic engagement and our ability to make informed decisions. We get forced into silos or we tune out altogether. While a healthy democracy does not require that we all think or vote the same way, it does demand that we share basic assumptions about the way the world works. Without common facts or understandings about where we are and where we’ve been, we are rudderless on a vast sea of mis-framed information, internet flotsam, and outright lies.
We could wait for our political institutions to catch up, but that may never happen. We could rely on Twitter and Facebook to sift through false or misleading information for us. Or we could do the heavy lifting ourselves by becoming attuned to what we consume, how much time we spend riding the flow of social media, and making healthier choices about our daily media habits.
First, everyone should track how much time they spend online. Keep a journal or set up your phone to keep track. Second, when a post sets you off, check your emotions and use mindfulness techniques like deep breathing to calm yourself before you react. Third, be aware of cognitive traps like confirmation bias and the mere exposure effect. Fourth, develop a short list of credible news sources you trust and read them every day. Finally, seek out alternative viewpoints. Algorithms may program us into silos, but ethical humans make a point to seek information from all perspectives.