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The problem with too much information

The job of being a citizen — and being a member of Congress — has gotten much harder of late. As sources of information proliferate and "news" not actually grounded in fact grows common on social media, Americans have to work to sort reality from fiction and insight from disinformation.

This is a challenge for our representative democracy. And we've only begun to grapple with it.

Why should too much information be a problem? Let's start with what I consider to be the most important skill in a representative democracy — not just in government, but within private organizations as well: building consensus. Without forging agreement among people who see the world differently, it's difficult to move governments and organizations forward.

The first step in arriving at a consensus is agreeing on the relevant facts. If you've ever watched your city council at work, or served on a civic committee, or even lobbied to get a stop sign put in or the speed limit changed on your street, you know this is the case. Without a common base of facts on which everyone agrees — the nature and extent of a problem, whom it affects and how — it's almost impossible to arrive at solutions that will be widely accepted.

This came home forcefully to me after the September 11 attacks, when I was vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which was expertly chaired by Tom Kean, the former governor of New Jersey. There were 10 of us on the commission, five Republicans and five Democrats, and though we were not a highly partisan group, in those highly charged times the potential for crippling disagreement was always there. So Chairman Kean and I got in the habit early on of asking the highly competent staff to provide us with the main facts on every issue we confronted. It was only by working hard to get agreement on those facts that we could move toward an agreement on recommendations.

But that was a small and, by today's political standards, relatively homogeneous group; building consensus was challenging, but not impossible. The larger and more diverse the institution — the United States Congress, for instance — the more difficult the task becomes.

Think for a moment about today's information/misinformation environment. Citizens these days look everywhere for news. They get it from teachers, religious leaders and special interest groups. They hear it from friends, family and neighbors. They find it on TV, talk radio, at the movies and on late-night comedy shows. In other words, news does not just come from the news media.

Too much of what citizens hear or read today is incorrect or incomplete, and even the most "objective" of sources has a bias. A member of Congress meeting with a group of constituents might find that each comes to the table with deeply held beliefs based on "information" from completely different, conflicting sources.

Then, too, plenty of sources today cater to a single, narrow political view with no pretense of objectivity. Their goal is to incite, not to inform. They drive the American people apart, rather than giving us a common base of knowledge we can use to forge agreement.

So what's to be done? I confess: I don't know. The moves made by some social media platforms and news organizations to fact-check stories and public claims are important. Relying on the work of credible, non-partisan organizations — for federal tax and spending issues, for instance, the work of the Congressional Budget Office comes to mind — is also helpful. Broad public awareness that we have a problem to overcome and encouraging critical thinking in schools and in public discourse...these, too, matter.

Still, solving the problem will take a concerted effort. Learning how to seek more diverse views, restoring confidence in public dialogue, finding sources and platforms that win broad acceptance as grounded in reliability and reality — all these will be important.

We live in a time of excessive polarization, mean-spirited politics, and invasive partisanship. Working within that environment to solve these problems is a challenge. I don't see an answer, but I do see and applaud the individuals and groups beginning to work on it. The future of our representative democracy rides on their success.

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