The Information Ecosystem is a Tragedy of the Commons
Information (and misinformation) doesn't exist in a static state. Instead, it lives in an ever-changing flux that we can think of like an ecosystem. In that ecosystem, you'll find producers of information, sharers of information, and consumers of information. Everyone has their own incentives, abilities, and bias. That makes for a challenging, dynamic informational system.
[This is an expanded version of an article originally published on September 2, 2022 by the Durango Herald.]
In the 21st century, the information ecosystem is more polluted than it's ever been. Fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories abound. If you want to understand why, think about it as a tragedy of the commons. That tragedy is enacted anytime acting in your own self interest unwittingly leads to a collective disaster.
In a 1968 paper, Professor Garrett Hardin offered the classic description of the tragedy. A group of three herdsmen share a common pasture. Being rational, each wants to maximize his gain. Adding an animal to the common pasture produces a positive benefit to one herdsman (one more sale at the market) and a negative shared across all three (depletion of the grass). Individually, each has an incentive to add as many animals as possible to the shared ground, ensuring eventual environmental collapse.
A reverse pattern explains pollution. It’s reversed because instead of removing something good from the commons, people are adding something harmful to them. But the logic is the same. Each factory owner along a stream has an incentive to dump chemicals into the watershed because the savings benefit the factory whereas the costs of stream pollution are shared across all users. The net result is that each agent has an incentive to pollute, and the commons will collapse.
All of those incentives apply to the information ecosystem.
Imagine the library from your high school. It was a collection of information that was available to all. By definition, it was a commons. Anyone could go in and borrow a book and learn something new. And now thanks to the internet, the informational commons is now larger than ever. With billions of websites and hundreds more added every day, it represents the greatest repository of information the universe has ever seen.
As individual agents, we benefit from using the informational commons. We use that information to improve our understanding, expand our knowledge, and inform our decisions. Think about how difficult your life would be if you couldn’t access accurate information available online. Like the herdsmen, we rely on the goods of the common to improve our lives.
And like the herdsmen, we shape the commons. To make the story simple, let's say contributing truth to the commons improves it while contributing falsehoods pollutes it. Each of us contributes to the informational pie.
But just like the factory owner, polluting the informational commons often produces a local gain while distributing the cost across all users. It's often in our own best interests to lie (disinformation) or at least be negligent with the truth (misinformation). For example, posting something false on social media can produce local benefits: you signal your political loyalty, entertain or outrage your friends, ensure you fit in with those around you, etc.
But with every intellectual mistake that’s added to the mix, the information ecosystem is degraded. The net result is an individual incentive to pollute: spewing misinformation makes the overall informational pie only slightly less informative while sometimes achieving immediate personal goals. You can still access reliable information about new models of cars while still negligently sharing stories about a stolen election.
So why is the fake news crisis so much worse now than a generation ago? The tragedy of the commons explains that, too. The commons is degraded only when the population of users grows to unsustainable levels. If there are only two herdsmen on a wide open pasture, degradation isn't likely to be a risk. If a single factory is on a stream, pollution isn’t likely to be a problem.
It’s the same with information. Before the advent of electronic media, almost no one could pollute the informational commons very much: it took too much time, effort, and money. Imagine how hard it would have been for you to alter the informational ecosystem at your local library when you were in high school! In that age, informational polluters were limited to centralized governments and wealthy newspaper owners.
But now anyone with a smartphone can Tweet, post, or otherwise share misinformation with a worldwide audience at the click of a button. So instead of having a few factories posted along a stream, now we have billions. Given those numbers and the incentives traced by professor Hardin fifty years ago, it's no wonder that the informational ecosystem is a tragedy of the commons.