“Flooding” describes a new form of censorship. Instead of the traditional censorship of shutting down the “sender” side of the communication paradigm, flooding works by confounding the “receiver” side. Its practitioners can claim to be allowing or even promoting communication and freedom, while effectively disallowing the kind of coherent conversations or consolidated understanding that might lead to actual empowerment and change.
The Google protests in November showed how this can work at a corporate level. Google is famous for its myriad internal communication systems. In hindsight, the protesters felt these were used to keep employees and managers docile, as Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist on the trust and safety team at YouTube, said:
I think we’re definitely encouraged by the powers that be to funnel our anger and our energy into places that it will not grow into anything actually powerful. We have to figure it out on our own with each other, how to actually build power and hold the powerful accountable.
Exhausting and fragmenting attention is a way to strip people of power — it drains energy, confuses meaning, and ensures incompatible views of the world.
Tim Wu, the author of a fascinating “Emerging Threats” report from the Knight First Amendment Institute, argues that the First Amendment may be obsolete because “it is no longer speech itself that is scarce, but the attention of listeners.” This realization has led nations, movements, and individuals who want to censor speech to change their practices:
Instead of targeting speakers directly, [the approach] targets listeners or undermines speakers indirectly.
The traditional approach to fighting censorship has been to make more information available. But, as Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU said recently on “The Daily Show” when asked about covering one of the people using “flooding” most effectively — President Trump:
. . . access to something that is fundamentally misinforming in the first place is not really worth anything.
Perhaps “flooding the zone” is why China has two million people assigned to churning out diversionary social media messages.
Wu describes three factors that have made flooding-as-censorship possible:
- The massive decrease since the 1990s in the costs of being an online speaker.
- The rise of a business model whose currency is the resale of human attention.
- The rise of the filter bubble, or the tendency of attention merchants to maximize revenues by offering audiences packages of information designed to match their preexisting interests.
When it comes to using tools weaponized to confuse, demoralize, subvert, divide, and paralyze the attention of audiences, the Chinese and Russian governments have led the way — developing methods of reverse censorship by “flooding the zone” using bots and troll farms to target filter bubbles with distractions, alternative theories, and contradictions.
Scholarly publishing may have inadvertently become a flood plain as well — by mimicking Silicon Valley’s now-outmoded ideas about information scarcity, and working with abandon to create information abundance. Take these examples:
- Multiple manuscript versions competing for attention. Just over a decade ago, you could be fairly certain that a scholarly manuscript was the finished, canonical, published work. Now, you may have an accepted version, a preprint version, the version of record, or an author’s uncorrected version. In more and more situations, there are multiple versions of a single research report, which magnifies the amount of available information without adding clarity or certainty. It may even create more confusion and hesitation than we realize.
- Business models designed to amplify the increase in information. The rising volume of scholarly research reports — thanks to organic growth in established markets plus the major infusion of papers from China’s newly productive research community — has been met by a business model that depends on publishing a high percentage of these. This has incentivized the development predatory publishers, refactoring of editorial standards to allow more papers to be published, and multiple cascading journal systems. All of this aligns financial rewards with factory publishing, which ultimately generates more information than anyone can reasonably be expected to consume.
- New information objects that can distract from the finished work. Open peer-review has led to the publication of more information about drafts of articles, editorial disputes and obfuscations, and other things one encounters when reading open peer review reports. Attention scores, social media widgets, and more all tempt users away from the content.
- Expanded information sets that can distract from the finished work. The publication and integration of data sets and supplementary materials, most of which are a rough ride if you’re looking for useful, filtered, quality information, all contribute to little distractions that create cognitive burdens for the user, expending attention for little additional benefit.
- More information objects that further tax decision-making and object differentiation. From bundles to “mirror journals” to microsites to advertorials, there are more information objects pelting users all the time.
The motivations for these duplicative versions, extended versions, and alternative outlets are often described with the vague catch-all term “open,” which may be followed by a term like “transparency.” However, in the context of information flooding, these terms border on the paradoxical and absurd. More information can amount to an attack on attention, causing users to turn away out of a sense of self-preservation. The information may be open, but users are closing down.
Of course, plenty of players are so self-centered they don’t care. Funders are one example. They seem to only care about having citable objects emanating from grants, and don’t care about measuring relative usage or actual clinical or real-world effectiveness.
But beyond mere callousness, others want to flood the market to confound reality, divert messaging in their favor, and better pursue their own ends. In a recent post about why corporations would love full OA, I wrote:
With OA, what was once a time-consuming and uncertain [marketing] path becomes an expeditious and straightforward freeway. With a relatively modest amount of money, our hypothetical pharmaceutical executive can pay for some ghost writers, a few hours from a couple of editors, a dozen APCs, and marketing materials citing, quoting, or reprinting those studies. This executive can, as the saying goes, “flood the zone” in the diabetes space for probably less than $500,000 in support of a drug that will generate billions in revenues during its patent phase. And there is almost no uncertainty. The journals will take the money to publish. The CC-BY license means the marketing only needs to credit the authors of the papers, something the company is happy to do as it conveys legitimacy. And they’re done!
Coalescing attention is how we make progress. Think about how the massive evidence of global warming has fared. We continue to have the zone flooded by misinformation and filibustering, and most policies are stymied by confusion and dissembling. The US ambassador to Canada recently said, “I believe both sides of the science.” This isn’t far from the other symptom of information abundance run amuck, the infamous “alternative facts.”
Yet, it wasn’t long ago that a scientific observation led to swift action. In the 1980s, the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica was reported into a well-organized information system, and this quickly led to policy and manufacturing changes. The ozone layer is now healing. As one scientist said:
If ozone-depleting substances had continued to increase, we would have seen huge effects. We stopped that.
Why hasn’t the same consensus at a policy, political, social, and economic level emerged with global warming? To reiterate a quote above about the effect of flooding the zone:
I think we’re definitely encouraged by the powers that be to funnel our anger and our energy into places that it will not grow into anything actually powerful.
Do you trust the Washington Post or Facebook more for your news? One has more information, yet that’s probably the one you trust less.
Clever information purveyors have realized that managing, diverting, dominating, and fragmenting attention can provide all the benefits of censorship with none of the downsides. They can stymie political and social progress for years, if not decades, using these techniques. Having more versions of papers, more open disagreements about the value of these papers, more sources for these papers may all play into the hands of those wishing to stymie progress.
Science now has “both sides” — there are pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine constituents, there is a resurgence in “flat Earthers,” and global warming policy is tied into knots by false disagreements about the evidence.
How to respond? Maybe we can begin by updating our mental model about how censorship and information suppression are now being achieved. It’s not about being deprived of information. It’s about drowning in it.