Learning the news: The classes of information consumption

Citizens of free republics are developing information consumption habits that could lead to the downfall of free society, writes Roger Plothow.

There’s a presidential election happening in France that is every bit as splintered and divisive as last year’s American election.

It also has at least one other thing in common with our election – it’s awash in fake news.

The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom reports that researchers from Oxford University found up to a quarter of the political links shared on Twitter in France were based on misinformation. They were identified as deliberately false and expressed “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial” views with logical flaws and opinions presented as facts.

Another study published this week from the private research group Bakamo shows many of the fake news reports came from sources “exposed to Russian influence.”

French newspaper Le Monde reports that the fake news has gone so far as to publish the results of a preliminary round of the election four days before the vote was actually held. Of course, all of these false stories were eagerly shared through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

It appears to me that we are in the process of developing several classes of information consumers that I’ll describe like this:

Blissfully ignorant: These are folks, probably about the same percentage we’ve had for generations, who simply don’t care much about what’s going on around them. They just want to be entertained and don’t want to be bothered with the mess of politics, social issues or participatory civics. If you are reading this column, you are not, by definition, in this group.

Bubble dwellers: These folks are either hyper-partisan or otherwise show an interest in the issues of the day, so long as the information they consume confirms their world view. They ignore or disbelieve information that contradicts their personal biases and swallow hook, line and sinker anything that supports those biases. In some ways, they are more dangerous than the blissfully ignorant.

Sincere but misled: This seems to be a growing group of people who really want to engage in informed civil discourse and participate in the issues of the day but aren’t sure where to go to get the information they need to do it productively. They consume snippets of information here and there, read the occasional book, watch TV news and may even subscribe to their local newspaper. But they are skimmers and are easily distracted.

Hard core: This small group of people are either learning to be media literate or have a basic intuition how to discern real news from fake, reliable information from nonsense and fact from fiction. If we are to move forward as a free society, this group needs to expand, and soon.

These are suppositions on my part, not based on research but on observations. I have no idea what percentage of our society is represented by each group, though I suggest the hard core information consumers among us represent 10 percent or less. In the long run, that probably doesn’t make for a sustainable republic.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.