In a previous post, What is Information, I wrote about how the concept of information was first introduced, and the definition of information. At the end of the post, I briefly touched on the information lifecycle, in a graphic that looked like this:
I will be dedicating one post to each part of the information lifecycle. The purpose of the Information Lifecycle series is to indulge in a topic of deep personal interest and learn more about it – all with the greater goal of increasing my information literacy and sharing that learning process.
As the American Library Association defines it, information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Being information literate includes the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Source.
This post is dedicated to the very first, the top, part of the information lifecycle: Create/Generate.
What to expect
In this post, I cover:
- If information is created or discovered
- When information is created
- How information is created
- Why is information created
- Who creates information
- What happens when false information is created (information disorder)
Throughout all posts about the information lifecycle, I will a) uphold the General Definition of Information (GDI), and b) include a section dedicated to information disorder.
In this post, I will not cover:
- Information formats (I’ll cover that in the next post)
- Authorship (mentioned briefly in this post, but more to come)
- Credibility (mentioned briefly in this post, but more to come)
- Authority (mentioned briefly in this post, but more to come)
- Value of information (more to come)
- Trust (more to come)
Is information created or discovered?
This is a tricky question.
Consider research – if a biologist is studying, say, the larvae of a fruit fly for cross-generational genetic abnormalities and they finally find some, can they be said to create information or were they merely discovering it?
This is when the distinction between data and information comes in; a datum is a fact regarding some difference or lack of uniformity within some context. The biologist has discovered data. The context for that data (e.g. the abnormality only appears in 8% of the fruit fly population) and the subsequent organization of that data into a comprehensible structure (e.g. a graph or academic paper), turns the data into information (with well-formed and meaningful data). The biologist has created information.
Data can be discovered, generated, or observed. But information is created.
When is information created?
It could be argued that information is only discovered once. There are two problems with that view. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly:
- When that occurs – when was the original instance of that information created?
- If the meaning ascribed to the data is the same meaning ascribed to the same (or similar) data discovered by someone else.
I land somewhere in the middle. I think information is generally a one-time occurrence in the scope of all human knowledge, and it also occurs whenever a single human brain creates information. (While information is created by animal brains all the time as they learn from their experiences, I focus on the human experience in the information lifecycle.)
“Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience.”Source: https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer
So we may perfectly well come away from experiencing the same data (or at least very similar data) and ascribe entirely different meanings to it.
How is information created?
The GDI says that an instance of information is considered information if it consists of one or more instances of data and if that data is well-formed and meaningful.
How has information been created in the past and how is it created now?
(Pst, they’re the same. History does indeed repeat itself.)
Here are the three ways information is typically created.
Direct experience is the first and fundamental way humans create information.
A human experiences an event. The brain synthesizes the sensory input (touch, smell, sight, sound, taste) from an event and organizes it into some sort of perception of the event. During this process, the brain turns sensory data into electrochemical signals; synapses are fired and somehow, this perception of the event is processed and stored in some way by the brain. However, I choose these words carefully because we all too often think of the brain like a computer that has inputs, processing, storage, and retrieval. But the brain is not a computer.
The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences…But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand… It encumbers our thinking with language and ideas that are so powerful we have trouble thinking around them.Source: https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer
If our brains were computers, then we’d be able to remember everything we’ve ever seen in perfect detail. As it were, most of us can’t and our neurons don’t simply store memories.
According to cognitive development theory and schema theory, new information creates or contributes to “schemas,” dynamic structures in the brain that help us process new information by referencing already-acquired information. Learn more about schema theory here.
For example, a human eats a mushroom for the first time that mushroom has ever been eaten, and they become ill shortly after. Because of the survival directive to seek patterns, the human’s brain will perhaps categorize that mushroom under the cognitive framework (the “schema”) that contains all “do not eat” food items. The visual stimulus of mushroom and the unpleasant sensation of being sick are now paired; the human was punished for the behavior of eating the mushroom.
The next time they encounter that mushroom, their brain will “flag” it as do not eat.
Interaction is the second and fundamental way humans create information.
Human A tells Human B to not eat that specific mushroom. For Human B, this is new information; maybe Human B then tells Human A not to eat a few different (other) kinds of mushrooms. Human A and Human B discuss how their trust in mushrooms is truly broken and they’ll be more careful when eating mushrooms in the future. Human A and Human B have just created an information node in their brains about mushrooms and how maybe newly discovered ones might be dangerous based on past experience. “Mushrooms might be dangerous” is new information.
Observation is the third and fundamental way humans create information.
A human observes Fox A and Fox B in the forest. Fox A eats an aforementioned mushroom. Fox A starts talking to Fox B. Fox B does not understand, so Fox A urges it to eat a mushroom. Fox B eats the mushroom, gains the ability to speak, and then they have a conversation.
This absurd scenario allows the human to learn that the mushroom also seems to give foxes the ability to speak.
TLDR; how is information created?
The things we experience through direct experience, interaction, or observation become information with which we navigate future experiences.
One good example of how new information is created is a scientific theory. Here’s a recap on scientific theory:
Scientists make progress by using the scientific method, a process of checking conclusions against nature. After observing something, a scientist tries to explain what has been seen.
The explanation is called a hypothesis. There is always at least one alternative hypothesis.
A part of nature is tested in a “controlled experiment” to see if the explanation matches reality. A controlled experiment is one in which all treatments are identical except that some are exposed to the hypothetical cause and some are not. Any differences in the way the treatments behave is attributed to the presence and lack of the cause.
If the results of the experiment are consistent with the hypothesis, there is evidence to support the hypothesis. If the two do not match, the scientist seeks an alternative explanation and redesigns the experiment.
When enough evidence accumulates, the understanding of this natural phenomenon is considered a scientific theory. A scientific theory persists until additional evidence causes it to be revised.
Nature’s reality is always the final judge of a scientific theory.Source: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/gaud/bio372/class/behavior/sciproc.htm
Why is information created?
While this is a valid question, I was hesitant to discuss it due to the complexities involved.
For a person, just like any other human behavior, the act of information creation can be intentional or unintentional; in other words, conscious vs. subconscious. According to self-determination theory, humans act due to intrinsic or extrinsic motivations that do or do not fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Learn more about that here and the difference between Maslow’s hierarchy and self-determination theory.
While the actions of one information creator may be explained in these relatively simple terms, once more than one person is involved, these terms may be overly simplistic. They certainly don’t fully explain why larger entities – organizations, institutions, entire governments – create information. In those cases, there may be a much more complex interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations at play, such as political or financial factors.
Who creates information?
We live in the “information age.” To get all metaphysical about it, some even call our digital environment an infosphere, which is akin to our physical reality, the biosphere.
In many respects, we are not standalone entities, but rather interconnected informational organisms or inforgs, sharing with biological agents and engineered artefacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere. This is the informational environment constituted by all informational processes, services, and entities, thus including informational agents as well as their properties, interactions, and mutual relations.Source: Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 9). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Simply, there is a lot of information floating around these days and we’re all steeped in it. So who’s creating all this stuff?
Any person, group, organization, or country can create information.
Sometimes they claim authorship, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the information is presented with authority (say, in an academic journal or media outlet), sometimes without authority, or sometimes it isn’t presented at all. Sometimes we don’t know when information is created, and we might never get access to it.
Anyone can create information?
Yeah… so about that.
Revisiting the definition of information with a caveat: data + meaning = information. If the underlying data is true/accurate, well-formed, and meaningful, then it’s information. As you can imagine, creating new information is actually really hard because it has to fulfill these conditions. But…
- What if something is wrong with data or the meaning ascribed to the data?
- What if there’s some false data?
- Or if the data isn’t well-formed?
- Or it’s not meaningful? Or has the wrong meaning? Or doesn’t have any meaning?
Then we have information disorder on our hands. Sounds scary, right?
Even though we don’t have any zombies climbing walls, the effects of information disorder are scary and there’s never been a more poignant time to talk about information disorder.
What is information disorder?
It’s nothing new, let’s be clear. Between smear campaigns between politicians since the dawn of, uh, politics, to anytime anyone has spread an untrue rumor, we’ve been dealing with information disorder.
According to the Council of Europe’s Information Disorder Report of November 2017, which attempts to “examine information disorder and its related challenges,” there are three types of information disorder:
The introduction to the 2017 report argues that “while the historical impact of rumours and fabricated content have been well documented… contemporary social technology means that we are witnessing something new: information pollution at a global scale; a complex web of motivations for creating, disseminating and consuming these ‘polluted’ messages; a myriad of content types and techniques for amplifying content; innumerable platforms hosting and reproducing this content; and breakneck speeds of communication between trusted peers.”
A summary of this quote and a few additional notes:
- Information disorder is created for a number of different reasons (outside the scope of this piece, read the Council of Europe’s report if you wish to learn more)
- Information disorder can be created by official or unofficial actors
- Information is typically packaged into the form of “messages,” which are then transmitted across complex networks at great speeds (more to come in future posts)
- This is happening at a greater scale and rate than we’ve ever seen before
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is created unintentionally.
I argue that misinformation is information that contains a) incorrect or inaccurate data, or b) not well-formed data, or c) data that either has no meaning, over assumed meaning or is assigned the wrong meaning.
While I can’t quantify this, my gut is that a substantial amount of what starts out as information becomes misinformation due to new data or a new way of observing, collecting, or deriving meaning from the data. We think we know something because we interpret some data we found and use it to create a theory about how something works. We think it’s right. In light of new data, 10 years later, it turns out we were wrong and our information becomes false or inaccurate – now it is misinformation. The scientific process has built-in structures that help account for this. Additional research is built on what came before, and things have to be confirmed and reconfirmed over the course of future research. The self-referential and repetitious nature of this process ideally helps reinforce the information that is more likely to be true, and debunk information that is more likely to be false.
Old wives’ tales are a good example of misinformation, if we assume that at some point somebody thought they were true.
- No, the daddy longlegs isn’t poisonous to humans.
- No, cracking knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis.
- No, going outside with wet hair will not make you get a cold.
(I was told all of these at some point or another as a child.)
When this information was created, the creator thought it was true. Like I said, it happens, and frequently.
Disinformation is false or inaccurate information that is created with the intent to cause harm.
A simple example of this would be a false rumor.
More serious examples include:
- Deep fake porn videos, when someone else’s face is “pasted” onto a porn actor’s face.
- Deceptive sales or marketing practices; fraud. “Snake oil” tactics. E.g. Lyson can totally be used for birth control. This is the stuff that led to the Federal Trade Commission’s Truth in Advertising act.
- Propaganda, like the Pear Soap’s “White Man’s Burden” advertisement. This is a well-known example of a combination of advertisement and propaganda for the white colonialist efforts in African nations. See the Pear’s Soap advertisements here.
The harm inflicted by misinformation can be anywhere from mild to catastrophic; short-term, to long-term.
Malinformation sounds like what it is. It is information that may be true or accurate and is strategically used to inflict harm on a person, group, business, or country. While the 2017 report classifies this as a type of information disorder and then doesn’t dive too deep into any type of analysis on this category, I interpret malinformation more so as just weaponized information.
- Leaking evidence about a political opponent’s extra-marital affairs to a media outlet
- Disclosing the movement of military units to enemy intelligence
TLDR; what is information disorder?
- All of Claire Wardle’s work
- Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis
- Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, Association of College & Research Libraries
- Council of Europe: Information Disorder – Towards an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking
- Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) Definition of Fake News
- Handbook for Journalism Education and Training: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)