IPA Member Post: Information Value: The Most Important Decision of the 2020 Presidential Election

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Dr. Paul Lieber, an IPA member and Chief Scientist at COLSA Corporation.  The material below is Dr. Lieber’s personal opinion and does not imply an official IPA position or endorsement.  However, as an association we welcome member views on this blog and intend to further a public discourse on topics related to cognitive security and the role of information in society and governance.

Information Value: The Most Important Decision of the 2020 Presidential Election

By Paul Lieber, Ph.D.

Chief Scientist, COLSA Corporation

Let’s set the landscape: Almost two decades ago to the day, I was employed as a Senior Associate at a prestigious tech public relations firm in Palo Alto, the then heart of Silicon Valley. For those old enough to recall, this was an exciting period for U.S. information professionals, with the advent of broadband ushering in endless excitement for the data stream soon to be at our disposal. This data – it was speculated – would redefine the entire intellectual, business, and human cognitive landscape across the world.

I quickly discovered, however, just how unhinged this same data became when even slightly manipulated. Timing, placement, patterns of dissemination, and choices of spokespersons created all sorts of delightful chaos. Want to increase investor speculation and ultimately stock purchases from Singapore? Highlight Malaysian computer monitor chip shortages via an industry analyst interview. Improve coverage in top print outlets? Dangle a beta level feature in a quarterly financial report. Stagger press tours, media kits, and radio soundbites to create an artificial sense of escalating market dominance. This was before social media, a robust internet, and even text messaging were frequent communication norms, mind you.

I was so enamored at this ease of seemingly covert but omnipotent information dominance that I pursued a doctorate specifically in statistics and methodological design, one emphasizing mass communication and cognitive decision making. Having worked as a researcher, educator, and practitioner in higher education, commercial, government and defense environs, I now sit as a Chief Scientist looking at a similar problem but on hyperdrive.

Enough about me. We supposedly sit at the cusp of “the most important election of our lives.” Based on the above, I call bullsh*t.

Why? Because twenty years from that first press release over in Palo Alto, we’ve learned very little – if anything – about information acumen. (Confession: I’ve invested thousands of research hours unfortunately confirming this fact.) Whomever you vote for will change little if we don’t change what got us here. Six key facts about the 2020 Election:

  1. We no longer effectively communicate in person. We instead require tools to rapidly disseminate text and images emulating emotion. Yet we lament lockdowns limiting in-person interactions.
  2. We no longer trust mass mediated communication from public or private sources. Even fact checkers are slaves to commercial interests. Yet we abandon lifelong friends over news preference and a lone ‘like.’
  3. We no longer possess faith in social and search engine platforms. Their leaders blatantly admit to manipulation as a fundamental profit-generating engine. Yet we turn to social media in record numbers and usage patterns.
  4. We no longer value our system of governance. Individuals now lead by Twitter posing as constituent feedback loops. Polls intended to inform on public sentiment are consistently wrong and poorly sampled. Yet we accept these magic numbers and what’s trending as means for joy or despair.
  5. We no longer care to understand medical data science. We rely on policy as protocols written by ever-changing guidelines versus substantiated data. We ‘trust in science’ that suits information requirements. Yet we collectively ignore mass suicides from guidelines calling for isolation.
  6. We no longer perceive diverse opinions and individuals as part of a greater collective. Ignoring violence further divides us as a nation. Yet we hold steadfast to maintaining online communities of shared interest…while protesting against offline (live) protests.

Political party, gender, sexual orientation, race, creed…? These information foibles do not discriminate or pick favorites. Is it any surprise the greatest obstacle in the cognitive security space lies in information assessment? The above array of information contradictions makes locating valid measures of effectiveness impossible. Ergo and for the last twenty years, we’ve used tools as expensive assessment crutches. At best, a series of unknowing strategic pauses to come up for air. In tandem, we find little to no solace in current training and education methods about cognitive security, as they too amazingly ignore the one true culprit in successful information warfare: the information itself.

Our adversaries didn’t stop their advance and inserted even more ways to confuse. Russia’s track records of capitalizing on the aforementioned six information missteps speaks for itself. The plan comprises a great deal more than any lost laptop or missing tax return.

John Lennon famously once said, “reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” And the man didn’t even have an Instagram account! In 2020, how we value information = how we perceive its utility. Despite the seeming no end to data access and tools to share in – and in all of my research on the above phenomena – I found little evidence of the tail wagging the dog between information and receiver. Meaning, the power is in our hands to repurpose the information seemingly so essential to our daily lives.

Once more: this is not a political question, by any means. To remain a relevant and empowered information populous, we must emerge from Election Day smarter and with better questions. The answers do not lie within our politicians, our information providers, nor the content on our screens. We must become more active in decisions about the relevancy of information driving decision making. Media literacy must be part of everyone’s life lesson plan and of those who we shape. It is up to us to see information as an agent of divisiveness or cohesion. The latest poll results from Iowa…or COVID numbers in Oklahoma City can no longer run our lives…as we wait for our phones tell us otherwise.

1 Response
  1. Michael Williams

    #4 is of course at the heart of most of our worries. A lack of faith in our system of governance and the amplification of these beliefs via, yes, social media, bodes ill for our society. Sadly, even the current pandemic seems to be a source of division. How will this play out? We are a nation shaped by ideas with diverse cultures. Once we ‘break’ these ideas, we have little around which to rally.