Editor’s Note: Dr. Paul Lieber, Information Professionals Association (IPA) Advisor and Chief Scientist at COLSA Corporation, shares his perspectives here on how data and social science can best be joined to tackle modern information problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Lieber has advocated for aggressively finding and using new approaches to information operations (IO)/information warfare (IW). His paper below spells out why and how.
COVID in the Age of Information
By Paul Lieber, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist, COLSA Corporation
COVID-19 is as much an information pandemic as it is a health pandemic. Specifically, it is a by-product of humanity’s inability to organize, process, and disseminate information in a meaningful fashion.
It is therefore both astonishing that: a) it took this long for a singular event to thrust information shortcomings into the spotlight, and b) nearly all impacted by COVID-19 are unaware of their information limitations.
For more than ten years, communication placed prominence on speed and conduit in lieu of substance. The rise of memes and short form text (e.g. Twitter and Instagram) compounded this preference. More can be said with less, and to a maximum amount of individuals. Inserting visuals into this mix, mainly being share-friendly and content rich, fueled this fire. An Instagram influencer, Mr. Trebek, is simply “a person with mastery of the sharing exercise.”
Most important today is not what is said rather to simply speak. A common hashtag of social justice movements is #silenceisviolence, where the absence of social media-based advocacy equates to being intolerant by default. Mass media – driven by a hunger for ratings and advertising revenue derived from online social interactions – second this notion, with an endless appetite for content to fill 24/7 requirements across a number of information platforms.
Moreover, today’s information environment thrives on emotional logic. Instilling cognitive dissonance in a message’s core argument will produce the strongest connection to content, and with it a desire to engage (via sharing or otherwise). This, in turn, drives the speed and conduit machine. It’s no wonder so many individuals are addicted to Facebook: leaving the platform creates a tremendous emotional void formerly served by it. Recognizing this, Facebook tailors its advertising to emotional cues. It also allows users who seemingly quit the platform an instantaneous ability to re-activate an account just by logging back in. Why are so many across the political spectrum angry at Facebook? It’s because they’re blatantly emotionally manipulating their users, individuals who fail to accept the link between emotional logic and opinion formation.
Social media’s endless interaction potential also begot the disappearance of information quality control and assurance. Amazingly, few during the COVID-19 pandemic (with information consumption at an all-time high due to self-quarantine) openly express concern with inaccurate content; accepting ambiguity and a lack of verification is a cost of doing business. In tandem, seeming fact checkers check little in the way of known fact.
The Poynter Institute, for example, employs a team of select journalists to serve as judge and jury on the veracity of statements about COVID-19. These same individuals, of course, are regularly reporting on the pandemic, thus completing but an exercise in tail wagging the dog. Second, they now offer academics access to their COVID-19 assessment database for further inquiry. Research into a database decrying truth versus falsehood is – by default – a flawed premise.
The above are not political statements, in fact politics serves as an easy excuse for information laziness. COVID-19 data is now nested into political motivation, a convenient shield for those sending and receiving information about the virus to hide behind. Disagreement with statements is quickly rationalized by political affiliation, stated or otherwise. Once more, #silenceisviolence by those seeking to sit on the communication sidelines due to information fatigue. Tsk, tsk in a presidential election year.
Importantly, all of the above is on the shakiest of foundations once disinformation (staging of strawman arguments to control frames of discourse), misinformation (blatant falsehoods) and deep fakes (computer generated visual and video content posing as real) factored in. With speed and reach of utmost priority, these three entities assumed a strongest hold in current communication conduits. With so much content – and emotional logic underpinning it – available, users are literally inundated by a smorgasbord of themes and frames about a particular issue, nearly all of it originating from or devolved into falsehoods.
To explain, any mainstream content derived from disinformation, misinformation, and/or deep fakes is – by default – inaccurate. Additional analyses and/or subsequent deep dives into this content is logically on shaky foundations of truth. As time passes, it becomes near-impossible to locate any aspect of a topic that isn’t touched by erroneous information. It is perhaps a conservative estimation that over 90% of social media content is wrong.
Inserting emotional logic into this package humanizes the lies. Thus, falsehoods ultimately become entrenched into discourse, with mass media, politicians and the public engaged in heated debates over said emotional logic posing as truth. Factor in additional nuance – i.e. gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc. – and the possibilities for emotional manipulation within seeming facts is endless. Wars are literally being fought over this, either in urban cities or between nation-states.
This erroneous but instantaneous information also destroyed the fields of statistical, data, and social science. While there decades-long jokes about mistrusting statistical outcomes (and rightly so, as numbers easily manipulated/reframed), percentage and trend data is tailor made for today’s rapid-fire information environments. The quickest path to verifying a falsehood is a statistic to back it up. Once more, few – if any – seek to explore the methodology and/or instrumentation behind the data.
For COVID-19, so many conclude its statistics either ‘wrong’ or ‘right,’ depending on data source. In actuality, all of its data is inaccurate. COVID-19 spread and death projection models were derived from a convenience sample with non-verifiable case numbers, treatment approaches, and recovery variables. Moreover, data from these original samples was then modeled exponentially based on population density. With no baseline data to draw from, no established knowledge about virus norms, and still no trustworthy method of COVID-19 testing, none of this should’ve been attached to virus public health information as justification or denouncement of action.
Of course, the exact opposite occurred. Trillions of dollars were literally invested into responding to this data. Tens of millions lost their jobs. Most importantly, many thousands died from poor COVID-19 approaches. Tensions mounted among a global populace ordered to stay at home for their own good. Politicians and mass media seized onto the confusion and discord, with seemingly no end in sight to their wantonness. Daily virus updates are knowingly provided by false positive counts, faulty tests, and/or delayed counts. The numbers are then backtracked to match degree of populace restriction as a success or failure story. But all accept these daily trends as evidence…of something. The health of our children and elderly are perhaps the greatest emotional logic triggers there are. For the first time in human existence we are actively labeling asymptomatic individuals as ill. Silence – once more – is violence.
All the while, hundreds of unproven claims about COVID-19 prevention and symptomology dominate information spaces. Even the most emotionally invested individual will – if being truly honest – confess to a lack of confidence in the information daily presented and consumed. Local elected officials were no different. Ergo, it is not that those communicating, receiving, and/or sharing COVID-19 information have bad intentions. Once again, they have no idea how to make sense of the information they are actively involved in.
As individuals lost the ability to meaningfully communicate, assessment mechanisms for communication effectiveness also evaporated. Information measures of effectiveness are not only elusive, they’re impossible in an information system that cares not about fact but speed, reach, and volume. There is no way to counter a narrative based on individual human emotion. Organizations deriving communication philosophy and approach from this flawed information premise are likewise finding themselves investing considerable resources to produce little if any noticeable effect.
Similarly – and as intent became a meaningless information commodity – social and data science accompanied it out the door. Social science’s role is to understand and explain human phenomena. It is deliberately being ignored and excommunicated, however, in an information space dominated by hashtags and retweets. This is mirrored in higher education, where aptitude in social science theory and its application was replaced by models of practice. The latter possess no rigor, external validity, and lends itself to firsthand experience as justification. The blind are literally leading the blind.
Astonishingly, with all this non-sensical information whizzing by, data science shortcomings only recently became discussion worthy. There is simply no way to organize, categorize, and assess the abundance of information inherent in a social media-led communication environment. Related, even the best search engine is flawed by algorithm bias. Third, unadvised data science tools and solutions (the common panacea to the modern information conundrum) do nothing other than put lipstick on a pig. Garbage in, garbage out where correlations are wrongly seen as predictive, statistical trends in tandem. All data science solutions – perhaps not surprisingly – require social science input to provide needed contextual refinement. But the two rarely exist as bedfellows, as training and paradigms in unintended conflict with one another.
A third but very important wrinkle in this problem set is the actions of peer competitors. Returning to discussion on disinformation, misinformation, and deep fake content, Russia and China are heaviest invested in sowing seeds of discord among the global populace. While the US and its allies assume a level information playing field…peer competitor falsehoods beget emotional logic…which begets poor science to justify…and then works backwards. Based on recent historical precedent, it is anything but conspiratorial to assume that information on anything critical to human functioning is actively being manipulated and mastered by Russian and Chinese communication actors. They are organizing information to promote their interests, controlling discussions to favor emotional logic extremes, and planting fake visuals and statistics to package falsehoods as facts.
These efforts are well documented by many mainstream mass media. In spots, bot, social network analysis, and deep fake detection tools are employed to highlight adversary manipulation within the information environment. But such efforts fail to translate to actionable decisions, in fact the opposite surprisingly occurs. Even those who locate and highlight Russia and Chinese manipulation exhaust considerable energies to dismiss this likelihood. This leaves politicians and mass media in a constant battle with one another to claim ultimate truth in an information environment knowingly flawed by design. Much of the for-profit sector similarly bases its decisions on information popularity versus actual sentiment.
So how can we collectively leave this abusive information relationship? The hardest first step is to boldly accept it for what it is. Since the inception of broadband technology at the turn of millennium, there is yet to be a pause in the demand for information speed and access in lieu of additional clarity. As a result, all of the assessment and reasoning protocols to make sense of information emphasized processing power over quality. Core knowledge foundations needed to go further and deeper were intentionally undermined, seen as dinosaurs with outdated rigorous approaches. Information professionals deemed the only logical response to simply respond. Because, #silenceisviolence, of course.
To accept and move toward a better information culture requires divesting of emotional logic baggage piled highest. It’s a hard reimagining of ourselves, our core belief systems, and everything we know to be true. It’s asking the difficult questions, changing the way we value and use information, also altering how we assess information utility. It’s recognizing and responding to peer competitor falsehoods by not responding rather educating on its presence. Russia and China have a decades’ long head start; they invented and mastered this race we can’t hope to win.
Now more than ever, diverse teams of professionals are required to solve the modern information problem. Organizations must be deliberate in force-fitting seemingly incompatible data and social science professionals into teams challenged to produce new ideas. They must abandon paradigms and practices, invent new ones requiring inputs from those with mutually exclusive knowledge from other disciplines.
Perhaps most important is to change the way we communicate with and to each other. With so much of our information flawed and seeded from untruths, we must be vulnerable and forthright in declaring where/how opinions are derived. A broken information source is only problematic when used as a primary justification for emotional logic then ultimately action. Assessment of communication effectiveness must adopt these same principles. The criteria for how we determine success will be the single greatest driver in how we act, period.
The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a valuable lesson in what not to do. It is a medical conundrum for which information could’ve been used to help versus punish, prevent, or post-hoc justify courses of action. We must reverse this approach, to which silence is deemed thoughtful consideration not brazen advocacy of the opposite.