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Our information systems aren’t broken — they’re working as intended

“The media landscape is overrun with toxic narratives and polluted information not because our systems are broken, but because our systems are working.”

In the coming year, I expect more and more journalists — and not just journalists, but everyday social media users — to reflect more critically, and with increasing anxiety, on the ambivalence of amplifying false, misleading, or otherwise damaging information. This will correspond — at least I hope it corresponds — with an increasing awareness that efforts to debunk false or harmful information, as well as related assumptions about how “light disinfects,” aren’t such straightforward tenets after all. It may be the case that light disinfects for some; simultaneously, light illuminates for others. In cases where the spotlight is shining on falsehoods, manipulation, or hate, that light can make a problem much, much worse, as information ricochets unpredictably between and across audiences.

I also expect more and more people to isolate (and approach with increasing anxiety) the root of the problem: the fact that the media landscape is overrun with toxic narratives and polluted information not because our systems are broken, but because our systems are working. Information and rumors and opinions spread like wildfire across social media platforms, just as they were meant to do — just as people were meant to use those platforms. Journalists cover the news most likely to generate the most engagement and clicks and cover the news that other journalists have already covered, just as the click-based web economy demands. Social platforms privilege and help spread the most popular content, because spreading popular content is how social media companies generate the most advertising revenue. Too much false and misleading information, too much harassment, too many memes, spreading too quickly with too little oversight or editorial restraint: This outcome isn’t incidental to how contemporary information systems function. It is a function of how these systems function.

I don’t think we will arrive at any solutions to these problems in the coming year, because to do so will require a fundamental restructuring of our economic and labor systems. I don’t think enough people in positions of power — those who personally benefit from all these systems working well — will be willing to relinquish the power that they have amassed. What I do think is that, in the coming year, more people will start worrying about the right things.

Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor in communications, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University.

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