By Yuri Idris
In our current day and age, it does not seem to matter anymore which societal issue is used as an example. For every issue, there appears to be an equal number of opinions as there are citizens, and there seems to be a lack of consensus on the problem definition as well as the solutions. This article will discuss how the environment from which individuals and organizations acquire their information is damaged and how this influences people’s ability to make sense of the world around them, especially in western countries such as the United States (US). An argument will be made on why this is one of the most fundamental issues in western countries and why this is a more significant issue for the West than for more closed societies such as China or Russia.
The information ecology and technology
The information ecology is the informational environment from which organizations and individuals acquire their information. The information ecology varies per individual as they interact with different people, have their own preferred sources, and these sources use various methods to customize what information is presented. Everyone uses information ecology to make sense of the world; this is also known as sensemaking. Finally, decision-making is used to attain their personal and organizational goals. Individuals, businesses, governments, universities, and other organizations participate in these complex, chaotic social systems. When the information ecology delivers information that is representative of reality, it is in good condition. If this is no longer the case, it is called damaged .
Sensemaking can be viewed as a paradigm, a tool, a process, or a theory of how people reduce uncertainty or ambiguity and socially negotiate meaning during decision-making events . The essential parts of sensemaking in reducing uncertainty are meaning, interpretation, comprehension, and understanding . This can either be done at the individual level or group level . Through the accurate construction of meaning, clarity increases, and confusion decreases .
The rapid development of information technology and the swift increase of internet usage caused a global explosion of data. This made the information ecology increasingly complex and beyond people’s ability to absorb and digest . When the information ecology is healthy, it is a source of tremendous potential. However, our hyper-connected, damaged information ecologies have given rise to severe sensemaking problems. Some of these trends may, in fact, reflect deliberate disinformation strategies by state and non-state actors to influence organizations, individuals, or possibly the masses . For example, social media is used to harm US interests, discredit public and private institutions and sow domestic strife . This partly explains how civilians can become victims of conspiracy theories .
There is a lack of universally trusted sources of high information quality to offload some sensemaking. Due to the lack of these universally trusted sources, people will try and make the best with what they have, which results in significant differences in what people believe to be true and possibly puts them at odds with their government. Friction between governments and their civilians is not solely caused by adverse countries but also by internal factors. There have been significant failures in global information coordination and cooperation. International and national institutions have struggled to retain authority and confidence in the face of a flood of misinformation . The ability to make sense depends on various internal and external factors, not exclusively, such as language, culture, technology, and societal openness.
The damaged information ecology is a wicked problem like none other. Before a problem can be solved, it needs to make sense first. Therefore, the damaged information ecology precedes almost every other problem. Paradoxically, it also affects itself. Whether discussing European security, climate change or the consequences of Covid-19, one is always dependent on the information ecology to solve an issue.
Comparing sensemaking and language
Like physical borders, the internet is, amongst other things, separated by language. The World Economic Forum compared the number of speakers a language has in real life and the amount of content in a certain language on the internet. 54% of the top million websites in 2019 were in English, while 6% were Russian and 1,7% were Chinese/Mandarin . According to the English Proficiency Index 2021, both Russians and Chinese have a moderate understanding of the English language . However, Russian is barely spoken in the US and China . Chinese is a popular language in the US but is mostly spoken by ethnic Chinese people and not by Americans . English being the lingua franca can also be seen as a downside for the US and its allies. Hostile foreign powers can participate and subvert information ecologies in which English is the primary language, while western countries will need to put in more effort to be just as effective.
Comparing sensemaking and culture
Culture plays a prominent role when it comes to sensemaking. Even though many cultural values and norms have been adopted in Europe from the US, there are still significant differences between these two bodies and between European countries themselves. To a certain degree, European countries have imitated the US and therefore share some of its weaknesses as well.
According to Hofstede, when comparing the US, China, and Russia, citizens in the US have more difficulties in accepting authoritative behavior from their institutions than citizens in China and Russia. This would allow for the values and norms of the US to be challenged with more ease. They are also more individualistic, which causes more dissent from shared societal values. Lastly, the US is more accepting of the idea of diverging from their shared values. It would therefore take longer before the authorities would feel threatened and use their power to counter the divergence. Together, these differences likely cause more divergence from the collectively accepted information, especially when communicated by an authority or government. Both China and Russia are similar in these matters, and so they are culturally more protected from foreign (dis)information than the US .
Comparing the openness of society
The internet connects people from different countries if they share the same language, and consequently, the internet affects one another’s culture. To secure the information ecology, countries attempt to regulate activity on the internet. China does so by using its great firewall . Most western popular apps are blocked in China for civilians, but they are used by various Chinese government agencies to distribute information . This increases their control and limits the agency of foreign companies in undertaking undesirable activities. Alternatively, China has its own version of almost any app imaginable. China has taken measures to limit the openness of its society, which increases the control over its information ecology. Russia regulates the internet to a less effective degree than the Chinese and does not have the population size to create alternative apps effectively. In both cases, the firewalls are no never-failing solutions; they need to be effective enough to deter most of their usage .
Contrasting with China and Russia, the US prefers net neutrality, which is the principle that internet providers do not get to control what you (can) do on the internet . Only in rare cases this net neutrality is violated to safeguard national security. The Trump administration, for instance, banned certain apps from one of the most prominent Chinese companies, Tencent. These bans have been revoked by the Biden administration, which will review its current approach for tougher sanctioning . Net neutrality is paid for in increased vulnerability of the information ecology.
Information warfare and western vulnerability
If the West is more vulnerable to a damaged information ecology, the West is disadvantaged when defending against information warfare. Russia and China have a better-protected information ecology, which means the US will be less effective and efficient when using informational warfare instruments offensively. In the new multipolar world order, the US and its western allies are disadvantaged on the informational battlefield. This means that the consequences of information warfare have a higher likelihood of manifesting in these countries. Due to the combination of information warfare and the interconnectedness of the information ecology, ripple effects could cause many additional (un)intended consequences in societies as polarization, conflict and/or apathy towards certain societal issues. When the effects are so numerous and unforeseeable, it is much better to prevent the damaging of the information ecology than to cure it. Although much damage has already been done, it is still better to avoid further deterioration of the information ecology sooner than later. So far, there only seems to be a limited number of viable solutions to regenerate the information ecology.
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