Understanding the Mis-Information Society

Critical thinking is a prerequisite, not simply ICT, writes Special Correspondent DOUGLAS RASBASH 

There have been numerous references to the aspiration of Botswana becoming an information society or an informed society. The term “information society” refers to a society characterised by extensive use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in various aspects of daily life, such as work, education, entertainment, and social interaction. In an information society, knowledge and information play a central role in economic, social, and cultural activities.

Key features of an information society include information that is readily available and accessible to a large portion of the population through technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, and digital media. Communication is predominantly conducted through digital channels, such as email, social media, instant messaging, and video conferencing. Economic activities are increasingly based on the production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge and information goods and services.

Industries such as technology, telecommunications, media, and information services thrive in this environment. Information flows quickly across geographical boundaries and organisational hierarchies, enabling real-time collaboration, innovation, and decision-making. Information and communication technologies empower individuals to create, share and access knowledge, fostering greater participation in social, political, and economic processes.

The real issue

The concept of information society emerged as a result of widespread adoption of digital technologies in the latter half of the 20th century. It continues to evolve as technology advances and societies adapt to the opportunities and challenges presented by the digital age. While it is true that the digital and online world requires smart communication systems, this feature argues that the real issue is not that of ICT hardware but is of the uses and abuses of the information that is generated.

The idea of living in a post-information society where belief outweighs fact and knowledge is stigmatised is a complex and much-debated topic. While it is true that we are inundated with vast amounts of information from various sources, including social media, and that misinformation and disinformation are prevalent, it is important to recognise that we haven’t necessarily moved beyond the importance of knowledge and facts altogether.

Here are a few points to consider. In the digital age, we are bombarded with information from a multitude of sources, making it challenging to discern truth from falsehood. This information overload can lead to confusion and skepticism, contributing to a sense of distrust in traditional sources of knowledge. We all suffer with confirmation bias where people seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs or biases, leading to the proliferation of echo chambers and the reinforcement of misinformation.

In such environments, belief can indeed become more important than facts as individuals prioritise information that aligns with their worldview, regardless of its accuracy. Obviously, social media platforms play a significant role in shaping public discourse and disseminating information. These platforms prioritise engagement and virality, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. Misinformation spreads rapidly on social media, often eclipsing factual information due to its sensationalism or emotional appeal.

The group’s narrative

Hence, despite such excess of information, societal polarisation remains and the rise of tribalistic identities has further exacerbated the tendency to prioritise belief over facts. People may align themselves with ideological or partisan group, where loyalty to the group’s narrative takes precedence over objective truth. Furthermore, there are the consequences of ignorance, by which we mean not wanting to know rather simply not knowing. While ignorance may not always be stigmatised in certain contexts, its consequences are increasingly recognised and scrutinised. In areas such as public health, climate change and governance, decisions based on misinformation or ignorance can have profound societal impacts, leading to calls for greater emphasis on evidence-based policymaking and critical thinking.

The diminishment of the importance of truth is a concerning trend that has implications for various aspects of society, including governance, media, public discourse, and interpersonal relationships. The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, particularly on digital platforms, has made it increasingly difficult to discern truth from falsehood. False or misleading information can spread rapidly, undermining trust in reliable sources of news and information.

Scepticism towards traditional institutions – including government, media, and academia – has contributed to a broader erosion of trust in authoritative or reliable sources of information. When institutions are perceived as biased or untrustworthy, people may turn to alternative sources that reinforce their biases, regardless of factual accuracy. In some cases, truth itself has been weaponised for political or ideological purposes. Actors with vested interests may manipulate or distort information to serve their agendas, undermining public trust in the veracity of information and contributing to a climate of uncertainty and confusion.

Truth overshadowed

The concept of post-truth politics, where emotional appeals and personal beliefs often take precedence over factual accuracy in shaping public opinion and policy decisions, has gained prominence in recent years. The objective truth may be overshadowed by subjective perceptions and narratives. Information can prioritise virality and engagement over factual accuracy, leading to the spread of misleading or sensationalised content. The proliferation of misinformation is undermined by the decline in critical thinking skills. Coupled with a lack of media literacy, this leaves individuals vulnerable to manipulation by false or misleading information.

Without the ability to evaluate sources critically and discern credible information from propaganda, people may unwittingly perpetuate falsehoods. Of vital importance is seeking to balancing fact with fiction is critical thinking, which is a foundational skill that involves analysing, evaluating, and synthesising information to form reasoned judgments or make decisions. Critical thinking involves the ability to break down complex ideas or arguments into their component parts in order to understand their structure and implications. This includes identifying underlying assumptions, detecting biases, and recognising logical fallacies.

Validity of arguments

Critical thinkers assess the credibility, relevance and reliability of information. They consider the source of information, the evidence provided, and the context in which it is presented. This evaluation helps them determine the validity of arguments and make informed decisions. Critical thinking enables individuals to approach problems systematically by identifying key issues, gathering relevant information, and considering alternative solutions.

Rather than relying on intuition or instinct, critical thinkers use evidence and reasoning to solve problems effectively. Critical thinking involves thinking outside the box and generating innovative solutions to problems. It requires the ability to explore different perspectives, challenge conventional wisdom, and consider unconventional ideas. Critical thinkers can articulate their thoughts clearly and effectively. They are able to express complex ideas, provide reasons and evidence to support their claims, and engage in constructive dialogue with others.

Effective communication is essential for sharing ideas, persuading others, and resolving conflicts. Critical thinkers are self-aware and reflective individuals who constantly examine their own beliefs, biases and assumptions. They are open to feedback and are willing to revise their views in light of new evidence or arguments. Critical thinking enables individuals to make well-informed decisions by weighing the available evidence, considering potential consequences, and evaluating alternative courses of action.

Irrational decisions

This helps critical thinkers to avoid impulsive or irrational decisions and navigate complex situations effectively. Critical thinking is a lifelong process that involves ongoing inquiry, exploration, and learning. It requires intellectual curiosity and a willingness to question assumptions, seek new information, and adapt to changing circumstances. But while most are agreed that critical thinking skills should be taught in school, can society comfortably live with a population of critical thinkers? Surely the risks of not thinking critically must be so much worse.

Addressing the diminishment of the importance of truth requires concerted efforts from multiple stakeholders, including media organisations, educational institutions, policymakers, and technology platforms. Promoting media literacy, fostering critical thinking skills, holding purveyors of misinformation accountable and reaffirming the value of objective truth are essential steps in combating this troubling trend and rebuilding trust in the integrity of information.