Can Information Set Us Free?

Can information set us free? Immanuel Kant argued that to become enlightened we must shed our nonage, our inability to utilize our own understanding. We must choose to use our minds without guidance from others. How does the proliferation of information fit into this idea? Does sharing public information inhibit the shedding of nonage, or can it be used as a tool for enlightenment? The answers to these questions seem dependent on the quality and source of information. Most likely, we all agree that the “right” information can enlighten us and set us free, while the “wrong” information can lead us astray.

What exactly does it mean to be free? Freedom is a state of being in which people can exchange information without restrictions. But how is this information governed? The goal of the Laissez-Fact Project is to enable you to draw your own conclusions about source credibility and accountability by presenting opposing viewpoints on several different topics related to a free-flowing environment of information.

How accurate is nutritional information?

At the heart of the question of whether information can set us free is the issue of source credibility. Since the advent of the Internet, the public’s access to factual information has increased dramatically, but accompanying this increased access is an exponentially increased danger of encountering incorrect information from unsubstantiated sources. It is likely that truthful information can help us get closer to achieving enlightenment. However, because informational sources sometimes benefit from obscuring the truth, it becomes the responsibility of the enlightened individual to wade through the overabundance of information to decide for himself what is factual.

Nutritional information is a good example illustrating the problem of source credibility. The importance of nutritional information extends well beyond the potential weight gain (or loss) hidden inside a box of cereal. Nutrition stands at the core of the very prospect of living. Families and individuals choose what food they will put into their bodies at an average of three times a day, making food choice a huge time-consumer and a defining element of one’s lifestyle. Despite the importance of nutritional information to the consumer, an understaffed  FDA (1) is responsible for disseminating important information about allergies, cholesterol, sugars, strange chemicals and actual nutrition. To supplement this information, most health conscious individuals live by what they read in health magazines, on the Internet, and on nutrition labels, yet fail to question the amount of trust they put into the facts that food companies and health organizations offer.  How can we know that these organizations have actually correctly counted the calories of a particular food, or that they have not twisted the truth (or told an outright lie) about their product? False nutritional information cannot make us intellectually free; rather, it cages the mind and makes us believe a lie. The only way one can distinguish the false information from the truth is by comparing different sources and taking credibility into account. It all boils down to the transparency and honesty of the nutrition information label. It is the consumer’s responsibility to question nutrition labels and advertisements.

For nearly as long as food companies have attempted to manipulate information to deceive the consumer and increase profits, governments have attempted to regulate food industries for the good of their citizens.  Food regulation laws date back to the 13th century, when the king of England restricted the ingredients that could be used to bake and sell bread for the public. Six hundred years later, the U.S. created the Bureau of Chemistry, now known as the Food and Drug Administration.   Other departments similar to the FDA (2) were created in reaction to the dangerous and unsanitary working conditions exposed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. This groundbreaking exposé inspired new laws, regulations, congressional investigations, books, blogs, documentaries and Internet searches aimed at creating transparency between the food packaging companies and consumers. While there is a long history of food regulation laws put in place to aid the consumer, the food industry has an equally long history of finding clever ways to circumvent regulations.

For instance, a frozen dinner company advertised “less than 1 gram of sodium per serving,” while the national standard measured sodium in milligrams. The company wrote this on the front of the box because 1 gram seemed like a lot less than the 900 milligrams written on the back of all the frozen dinner packages. This is just one of many examples (3) of the food industry misleading customers into making unhealthy (and sometimes dangerous) choices.

Diet soda is another example in which the companies in question have attempted to manipulate facts to sell their product. The diet soda demographic is expansive, ranging from teenage girls to elderly men trying to keep off pounds — but are the catchy commercials and intriguing ads really giving us all the information? An NPR  interview (4)of the American Beverage Association (ABA) gave the corporation the chance to tell listeners “low calorie sweeteners… are a safe and effective tool in weight loss and weight management, according to decades of scientific research” (NPR). Susan Swithers of Purdue University, however, contends that “[f]indings from studies show that routine consumption of diet sodas… can be connected to a higher likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure… in addition to contributing to weight gain.” This particular case is an example of how source credibility plays a huge part in sorting through information. A less skeptical listener might not take into account that the ABA profits from the promotion of drinks and that its goal is to give diet drinks a good reputation so that consumers will buy them. Such a listener may be even less likely to seek out contradictory information and, as a result, may experience the negative consequences Swithers describes. It is important for consumers to take credibility into account because sources may be attempting to hide the truth, which could have dangerous health consequences for the consumers.

Just as companies within the food industry that stand to profit from misleading information continue to do so in spite of regulation efforts, parties in any arena that stand to benefit from manipulated information will continue to promote and disseminate that manipulated information. It is the responsibility of the individual to not only recognize this problem, but to continually interrogate the motivations of any source that provides information in order to discern the truth and avoid negative consequences, such as health risks in the case of nutritional information.

Is there any way to avoid biases in political information?

Politics plays an important role in the wellbeing of the people it governs. The political atmosphere in the U.S. is a heated battle between parties. In the end, the parties must come to an agreement to show how the political system is, in fact, a great procedure for passing legislation to protect the people it governs. The primary way political leaders carry out their actions is by lobbying for what they believe in. Politicians’ assertive power can be exercised through their parties. When it comes to citizens and interpreting political viewpoints, one might say that they are simply forced to believe in the political causes that are most frequently thrust upon them. Citizens, however, hold more political power than one may initially be led to believe.

People have the power to question each political party through the means of technology. Technology facilitates the expression of contrasting viewpoints on a political topic. Technology’s (particularly social media’s) wide reach can be beneficial when trying to discover what views citizens support in their political parties. “We have found a strong relationship between young voters’ perceptions or confidence in their political knowledge and the likelihood that they will exercise their right to vote,” said Barry Hollander(5). Informed citizens can use this vast database of information to decide what is true. Still, citizens must be able to properly judge the credibility of this overload of information for it to be useful. How does one determine what is credible?

Everyone must first decide on what they believe in and how the information portrayed relates to the topic at hand. They see how each opposing viewpoint stands on the certain topic, and can decide firsthand what is right for them. This system allows the individual to govern his or her own concrete assertion on the subject matter. The information gathered enables the person to distinguish right from wrong. It informs so that people can make more solid judgments about their political allegiance, thus empowering citizens with more effective control over their governments.

But will the questions we ask receive truthful answers?  Ignorance is bliss, my friends. In the age of information, this is especially applicable in politics.  When everything you could desire to know about a subject is one quick Google search or a short remote click away, we’ve obtained too much information. There are many benefits to remaining informed about candidates and parties, policies, and legislation. In this case, however, the bad outweighs the good.

Everyone has that friend, with their half-formed opinion based on partial or bad information, that won’t stop regurgitating their political opinions. We “un-friend” them on Facebook, ignore them, or, if we’re feeling especially brave, engage them and lance the giant holes just waiting to be ripped into their arguments. That is all of the encouragement that they need. Fox News said this, CNN touted this, MSNBC swears by it, the blog with the kindly fellow holding an AK-47 in each hand said it’s about our rights. Everyone has heard the expression about opinions and what they are like, but thanks to the overexposure of political “information,” any misinformed individual with an Internet connection suddenly becomes a Nobel Prize candidate in political science. And these “responsible news outlets” helping crazy Cousin Daryll come to these half-baked conclusions? Even more reputable media outlets, such as CNN, have come under fire to the point of public reprimand from the President himself for misreporting “facts.”

In reality, where politics are concerned, everyone has an agenda. They will skew the “information” to support whatever agenda they’re harboring, no matter which way it swings.  “For example…news outlets accordingly shift into patrol mode by dispatching resources and attention to the primary race(s) as soon as each election year begins,” said Amber Boydstun (6). Whatever cause they’re seeking to further, the news outlet will slant towards it.

When it comes to the public trying to make better political choices by having more access to the facts, “Factual information can change policy preferences, but the effect is not consistent,” according to Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (7). The truth is, people will find ways to manipulate facts to bolster their agendas, and not the other way around.  This is especially applicable to conspiracy theorists and extremists, who can link tangential information back to proving whatever they want, and doing so convincingly to raise doubts.

Then there’s the case of the celebrity of politics. When you are put in the position of leading people, all eyes are on you. But now, in the age where every television and computer in the world can access your mistakes (Anthony Weiner) or use your statements out of context against you, it makes it nigh impossible to maintain a professional image. Many of President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorist statements, used to bolster our nation in times of turbulence, become almost laughable when viewed as isolated rhetoric. “Nevertheless, mass media can hinder political transparency as well as help it. Politicians and political operatives can simulate the political virtues of transparency through rhetorical and media manipulation. Television tends to convert coverage of law and politics into forms of entertainment for mass consumption, and television serves as fertile ground for a self-proliferating culture of scandal,” said Jack M. Balkin (8).

In the field of politics, the more information we have, the more it seems to shackle us with bias or agendas or plain old bad information. Our opinions become less informed and more swayed. The facts are always presented within the context of the views of whoever is reporting them, and any transparency is strategic or unintentional.

Is social media a useful medium to obtain information?

The world’s most popular social networking site, Facebook, reported one billion users in 2012, with its user base expanding from primarily teenagers and young adults in its earlier years to users of all ages, according to Kristin Marino (9). This means that a global network of over one billion people on a single site has access to other’s experiences, opinions, and information in a way that hadn’t been possible with traditional long-distance communication forms. Changing global communication is not only connecting us with people who are far away; it is the world’s first step toward becoming a global community instead of one divided by boundaries. Social media sites provide a creative outlet for individuals to voice their opinions on frequently overlooked government issues. These networks allow individuals with the same motives and actions to unite for what they believe in and inform society about prevalent issues.

According to Marino, social media has become the second largest news source, right behind print news in recent years. This means that during important events, people in one part of the world are able to directly connect with users internationally and share their experiences, all while bypassing corporate media’s filter. Opponents of social media’s validity cite this fact because it shows how few barriers there are to sharing information in this model, suggesting that it is impossible to believe any of the shared information because of the invalidity of the sources. However, the beauty of social media is that because there are so many users, it is possible to compare information from many angles, discouraging any single source’s monopolization.

This has given rise to a new phenomenon: the ability to choose from a variety of communication methods. This level of choice was difficult, if not impossible, to attain during periods of print and telecom media domination. Instead of turning to only one or two media sources for much of the information we consume, social media now allows us to connect with other people internationally who can share, create, and discuss in ways physical boundaries prohibit. This is already fundamentally changing how media is marketed and distributed (viral marketing, Netflix, Spotify (10), etc.).

Social media was one way that millions found out about the Trayvon Martin case. MTV News (11)states that, “protests to a large degree were created online” to rally up support for Trayvon Martin. Some believed that because Martin and his family were minorities, the case would not gain attention. However, after rallying numerous supporters and actively protesting via social media, Trayvon Martin’s family gained nationwide support. Social media sites proved essential for spreading information on June 10th 2013, also known as “Hoodie Day.” Members who supported Trayvon and his family spread the word about “Hoodie Day” via social networking sites. People everywhere honored Martin by wearing hooded sweatshirts (“hoodies”). As this demonstrates, social media can be an outlet for minorities in the U.S. and serve as a medium for justice, informing Americans who would otherwise be blind to issues.

Social media has abolished the boundaries of environmental isolation that many conglomerates have been exploiting for years, placing the power in the hands of the users and connecting people, creations, opinions, and cultures. It fundamentally alters how we interact as a global community (12).

In theory, social networking can connect people across the globe and spread information at an incredibly fast rate; but is that how it’s being used? In social media there are truths in the midst, but they are few and far between. Under no means should we rely on it to set us free. To start, social media is notorious for a great deal of white noise and static. Every day, hundreds of thousands of material is posted on social networking sites. Still, how much of this information is actually useful to us? Most likely, it is not very useful. Your old high school friend posts a selfie, and someone else posts something about their new cat. This type of information is boiled down to random thought patterns manifested via a computer and a keyboard, but it can still be classified as “information”. Everyone on Facebook is putting up information, but the vast amount is empty words about various unrelated events over the course of daily life.

Of course, some people may seem informed and focused when speaking on real world topics and issues, but to go off this alone would prove dangerous. Proper background knowledge and relevant facts should always be checked in this instance. It does a person no good to simply conjure up conclusions based on social media. The concrete and stable means of gaining information should always lie in books and current events. It is too risky to take information based solely on one person’s or even a group of people’s perception and understanding in a social media context.

There is also little, if any, credibility (13) in the social media world. People are free to post and write whatever their heart desires without any concern for correctness or credibility. Recklessness and freedom to disperse information actually hinder our understanding of the world. This kind of information cannot set us free. Social media is a device for staying connected with others, but as a source for true information and knowledge, one should consult a more reputable source rather than a proxy for it.

Social media is also a bit ironic in the sense that the more information about your identity (14) that you release through social media, the more it restrains your identity at the same time. For instance, if you normally never drink but post pictures of a drunken weekend, another person who has a limited and restricted idea of who you are may misjudge you based on those pictures. Also, think about how the things that you post are virtually imprinted on the site forever. No matter what sort of privacy you think you have, if people want information on you, they can get it. Facebook timeline is definitely one of the creepiest way of placing your information online, mapping out every post and mile marker in your life, as if to say “take as much of your own life and digitize it for the entire world to see.”

Dare to know

Information can enlighten; it can also mislead. To determine the validity of information, the individual must examine the source’s credibility, the context of the information, attempt to detect biases, and consider opposing views. The enlightened individual has control over the constant influx of information that bombards us every day. Because we have control over this information, we hold a responsibility to govern what we deem appropriate. Hopefully, having thought through opposing perspectives on several topics, you are one step closer to determining your own truth. Can information set us free? Decide for yourself. Sapere aude: Dare to know.