How to be better informed politically in 2021, without spending too much more time and attention on it.

‘Politics’ essentially is collective information-processing, or collective cognition and behaviour. This article is about how to more consciously choose and improve how you receive input information, which is the earliest point in the process, so it’s the most efficient point to intervene at if you want to make better decisions with the same or less time and effort.

  1. Look at the URL before you react to the headline or the image or read it.

This is the simplest possible check, but it makes a big difference. Often when people believe nonsense, they haven’t even noticed the source.

Do you recognize the source? What do you know about it? Why do you trust this source, and how much? Is there an individual named author? If not, is there a good reason for that? Is the individual named author actually a real person? (If in doubt, for a start, you could reverse image search their profile photo.) What else do they publish, especially on topics which you know more about so you can judge better whether they’re trustworthy?

2) Source-checking should come before fact-checking.

Fact-checking is enormously labour-intensive and time-consuming, if you do it properly. Fact-checking messages spread much too slowly to catch up with mis- or disinformation. No-one can be a specialist in every subject, and, often, without specialist knowledge it can be impossible to see partial truths, layered falsehoods using a bit of truth to start with to make them seem credible, or popular, widely repeated and apparently corroborated, yet false, opinions.

A claim being widely repeated online has no necessary connection to it being true. Especially on politically controversial issues, and even more so those with more systemic meta-political strategic value if the opposing political groups win majority support, it’s even more likely that the most popular and widely repeated claims will be partisan misinformation than that majority opinion(s) will converge upon the truth. Finding the truth among the social-proofing noise online is like a needle in a haystack.

So, if you try to fact-check all the information coming at you now (or even just try to find a fact-check from someone you trust), it’s impossible to deal with the volume and rate of it all in that way, and you’re more likely to be misled because of not having the necessary specialist level of knowledge about the subject, if you don’t discriminate between sources first.

3) Think about what it means to be in a networked information environment.

Humans have always lived in social networks, but the scale, complexity and dynamics of social networks since the social internet are overwhelming, and, more importantly, the platforms aren’t built realistically according to how human social cognitive psychology actually works, in two ways: (i) they assume an Enlightenment myth of individual rationality, artificially de-socially-contextualised from how our input information comes to us and how we choose who to trust for what information, and(ii) they assume a concept of human personhood which reduces us to just consumers.

Living in a socially networked information environment implies that:

i) Your position in the network affects what you will see, and what you won’t see if you remain a passive consumer, ii) if you don’t take account of (i), you could process the information you receive rationally, and yet your decisions could be absurdly irrational (inaccurate + inefficiently made) relative to the material environment.

Your social network position determines the statistical sampling biases on what information you will and won’t receive, and how much it appears socially proven to you. This was true even before digital representations of social networks, but network positionality determining the statistical sampling biases on which information we receive has accelerated since social media became the majority of the public information space.

There is a problem with the traditional Enlightenment ideal of ‘pure reason’, or artificially disembodied and de-socially-contextualized ‘rationality’. Even perfect individual reasoning processes in splendid individual isolation cannot produce objectively rational decisions or behaviours if we don’t also use our innate and learned social heuristics well to filter and evaluate the information which we start with. Wisdom consists of knowing the limits and specific fallibilities of all means of knowledge, managing our social networks and social heuristics well, knowing how to balance and when to switch between social heuristics and individual reasoning, and how to adapt our emotional, personality-forming processes to more easily and fluently update our priors, which requires accepting that understanding is inherently an open-ended and unfinishable process. Total, perfect or final knowledge is not available in the human condition.

‘Heuristic’ means an efficient but approximate decision-making process. Heuristics are indeed more fallible than individual reasoning processes, if both are viewed as if in isolation, but they don’t exist in isolation. Heuristics taken to excess or over-relied upon often become logical fallacies. But if you don’t filter and weight incoming information using efficient, approximate cognitive shortcuts enough, i.e. forgetting most of the data, you will be overwhelmed, incapable of processing the volume and complexity of details logically, and in fact make less rational decisions than if you had filtered and weighted information using social heuristics carefully before processing details. The American Psychological Association dictionary mentions innate heuristic cognitive mechanisms, but there are also learned heuristics.

4) Proactively look around the network, don’t just be a passive consumer.

Authoritarian manipulators are seeking to undermine democratic values and to normalize their sort of meta-politics (‘meta-politics’ is short for systems of: (a) epistemological practices — how we think we can possibly know anything and what are the limits of how and what we can know; (b) ontologies — theories of how things can exist, or less abstractly — our concepts about ourselves and the world; (c.) meta-ethics — how we make decisions about what we should do).

They not only distribute disinformation that instantiates their metapolitics, but also use information that says nothing really new but still triggers instantiation or internalisation of implied values and framing metaphors, which reshape the community structure of the network, disrupting and reforming clusters and online communities around conflict-framed themes and defining the boundary terms of groups so that they increase the epistemic closure of each group, so that with each iteration of their narrative framing of subsequent events, the group becomes easier to manipulate, distract, and collectively coercively control in the long-term.

But there’s a simple way to counter their strategy to increase your manipulability— proactively look around the global network, deliberately diversify your network and seek sources that are directly, or as close as possible to, the human subjects affected by each issue which you want to know about, or at least recognize when you don’t know what’s coming from whom and what their interest is, and avoid interacting with merely emotive or socially performative content which just moves your relative position in the network more towards or deeper into an isolated and partisan sub-network which makes you more likely to get lost in ideological narratives.

When you’re sufficiently clear where different information claims are coming from to not get immersed or lost in them, try to also keep an eye on what the enemy are saying too — a little bit of deliberate inoculation with manipulative, layered disinformation can prime our cognitive immune systems to recognize it and reject it faster. One way inoculation works is that we can recognize when people who function as launderers of manipulative disinformation into the mainstream are echoing the themes of authoritarian regimes’ and their allied organisations’ recent messaging.

5) Look for info on subjects as close as possible to being communicated by the subjects themselves.

This is an epistemological implication of the ethical principles of Preferential Option for the Poor and Subsidiarity: every discussion or decision about people should prioritise listening to those who are most directly or severely affected by the issue first and foremost, and people should be directly participating and having as much control as possible in decisions which affect them most, without detracting from common goods.

(You can read complicated theoretical books on Orientalism in post-colonial cultures, but if you simply listen to the people most directly affected by an issue first, you’ll avoid at least most Orientalist errors.)

This doesn’t mean assuming that oppressed or marginalized people can never do any wrong, which is implicitly to assume that they have no human agency, and re-centering ‘our’ authorities as always to blame instead.

The principle of listening first to the subjects themselves means you should reject almost all Opinion articles by generalist commentators or columnists. If it’s a subject you don’t know enough about to judge fairly, read enough News reporting about it to substantiate the relevant facts first, so that you can judge the opinions by the facts. If you don’t have enough free time, attention and working memory to read the facts first, then it’s better to defer judgement and express no opinion than to believe an opinion which has probably been designed to fit your demographic or political grouping’s consumer sentiments and preferences more than to be fair to the subjects.

Justice in the process of understanding others requires us to grow our patience to fit the needs of the subject(s), not to trim the subject’s complexities to fit our impatience, or our identity cohesion defensive narratives. This is the simplest form of social scientific ethics.

6) Try to build up and update a mental network map (and-or use network graphs to help) of the global network and of your relative position in it .

Thera are some excellent tech tools to help you do this, and increasingly beginner-friendly, but no social graphing software will ever be perfect, because of limitations on data collection, especially of offline social networks, lack of data on directionality, lack of graphs and graphing methods that show how the ‘layers’ or different kinds of semantic and network-actors networks interact and shape each other. Like all scientific instruments, however advanced social network analysis and graphing methods may become, they’ll still need human intelligence to interpret the relevance of measures, check the analysis methods make sense given the context of the subject, and then evaluate the evidence. And meanwhile, humans’ best evolved intelligence domain is social psychology and social networks, so use your own amazing onboard supercomputer first.

7) Positively develop and refine your own filter bubble.

By taking account of how the global and local networks are structured and how the recommendation algorithms work, you can use them consciously to positively shape, diversify and prioritize your social information filter bubble. Current social internet data structures and algorithms are based on the assumptions that all choices are consumer choices, all kinds of information are consumer products, and the customer or consumer is never wrong. Those are design choices — a social internet doesn’t have to be built this way. But it is inevitable that our knowledge is constrained by positionality in social networks, so accept it and make it as good as it can be.

Google search results are also personalized (unless you use a tool to avoid this), so, for better or worse, your Google (or other internet search engine) search results depend on your search habits. So, e.g. my search results now usually come up with papers in high ranking scientific journals first, but it didn’t used to be like this. Consumer-oriented social network platforms and search engines will feed your epistemic vices or virtues with whatever engages most with your consumer sentiments and preferences. So beware.

8) Both excessive objectivism and excessive subjectivism lead to epistemic and ethical errors. Total objectivity is impossible, but denying that there is an objective world or any universal objective truth to be found is dangerous.

It’s true, as the postmodernists claim, that we cannot possibly know totally, perfectly, or finally what is objectively true, or to put it another way — it is infinitely difficult to approach complete knowledge of the objective world, and the closer you get the harder each little step is, but if we give up believing that there is an objective, universally shared world out there, outside of our own minds and all of our social filter bubbles, then it becomes impossible to maintain a political system based on facts and valuing facts — it becomes impossible to say who did what to whom when and where, so it’s impossible to have justice, and especially impossible to defend justice for those who are less powerful and less able to impose their arbitrary narratives by coercion or manipulation. Total objectivity and total subjectivity are both false, and both lead to increasing systemic injustices.

9) We know almost nothing directly as individuals; almost everything we think we know we’ve actually accepted on trust from someone else .

In almost all cases, when we think we know what’s true, the trust decision comes before the factual accuracy decision — our rationality, as much as it actually exists, is primarily social, not individual. Individual rationality depends on being smart and careful socially about how we get our information and who we trust, how much, and on which subjects.

The myth of primarily individual rationality is a legitimation story for capitalist hierarchies of exploitation. Those higher up in capitalist socioeconomic hierarchies supposedly deserve it because of their exceptional individual rationality, but in fact they are primarily and mainly rational only inasmuch as they’re lucky in their social niches and some learned to manage their social trust and information supplying networks.

10) Narratives which elicit a sense of disempowerment and disengagement from democratic institutions and procedures should trigger our suspicion.

Susceptibility to manipulative disinformation narratives, including conspiracy theories, depends on how much people have a sense of disempowerment, which populists cultivate and exploit to get people to give up their interior personal freedoms of intellect and conscience, to give up thinking as individuals and think only according to their group identity and to delegate their conscientious judgements to the group leader, in exchange for a sense of power as a group without responsibilities.

More power actually depends on maintaining a bigger political coalition, but that requires everyone in the coalition to exercise their freedom with enough sense of responsibility to each other to keep the coalition together. If a factional group within the bigger political coalition acts irresponsibly, the bigger coalition becomes dysfunctional or disintegrates, and then both the factional group and the bigger coalition will have less power.

Power or freedom without a balanced sense of responsibilities is politically unsustainable. Political narratives which elicit disengagement from existing democratic institutions and procedures, albeit really imperfect, by exaggerating their faults or by making the perfect the enemy of the good (“Il meglio è l’inimico del bene”), should trigger suspicion.

Who benefits (cui bono?) from spreading disengagement from imperfect but good democratic structures? Will after the revolution, or after ethnically or religiously cleansing the nation, really be better? How?

Won’t making things actually better still require massive amounts of attention to detail and patience, more than any simplistic ideological narrative explanation for everything?

This article actually presents a system of meta-politics — a set of basic values and assumptions about how (a) how we can possibly know anything relates to (b) what we think exists and how we conceive of ourselves and the world, and (c) how those relate to how we decide what we should do, are inherently interrelated. Any idea about one of the three (epistemology, ontology, and meta-ethics) necessarily implies ideas about the other two.

Lapsed biologist retraining as a social data scientist, often writing about refugee rights advocacy and political philosophy.

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