It’s commonplace to say that we’re all deluged by more information than we can possibly handle. Less commonplace is the acknowledgement that human judgements also rely upon secondary information that doesn’t come from any external source – and that offers one of the most powerful tools we possess for dealing with the deluge itself. This source is social information. Or, in other words: what we think other people are thinking.
Consider a simple scenario. You’re in a crowded theatre when, suddenly, people all around you start panicking and looking for an exit. What do you do, and why? Your senses inform you that other people are moving frantically. But it’s the social interpretation you put on this information that tells you what you most need to know: these people believe that something bad is happening, and this means you should probably be trying to escape too.
At least, that’s one possible interpretation. It may be the case that you, or they, are mistaken. Perhaps there’s been a false alarm, or part of the performance has been misunderstood. Reading social information accurately is an essential skill, and one most of us devote an immense amount of effort to practising. Indeed, wondering what’s going on inside someone else’s head is one of humanity’s greatest fascinations – alongside trying to influence it.
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So far, so familiar. But the information suffusion of digital culture has introduced something new into this ancient psychological equation: a whole new level of reliance upon social information; and a whole new set of hazards and anxieties around errors, manipulation and cascades of influence.
Danish researchers Vincent F Hendricks and Pelle G Hansen give these tumultuous processes a name – an “information storm”, or infostorm, in the sense of a sudden and tempestuous flow of social information – and suggest an intriguing alternative to the narratives of human folly and unreason so often applied to fake news and tribal divisions online. (Read about how fake news is one of the grand challenges of our time.)