Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the words “information manipulation” and you’ll likely get only one response: Censorship. While certainly a form of information manipulation, it is hardly the only one. It’s not even the most effective technique. Censorship’s two cousins—information friction and information flooding—are much more common and vastly more effective. In this article, we’ll travel to China to learn how both information friction and information flooding help the government manage its sprawling bureaucracy. Then we’ll hop a plane back to the United States to see how both techniques are at work in our culture as well. Finally, we will examine the information professionals’ responsibility to recognize information friction and information flooding at work against (or in) their organizations.
Information manipulation is a provocative topic. It stirs strong emotions—closing our minds to the underlying methods before we have a chance to discover how it works. That’s unfortunate. Unless we understand information manipulation, we cannot address it. To help explore the issues at play without triggering our natural defense mechanisms, I’ll start with Linda Shute’s version of the story of Clever Tom and the Leprechaun (Scholastic, 1988).
Once upon a time…
…Clever Tom found himself walking in the meadow by his home in rural Ireland when he came across a leprechaun propped up against a fencepost fast asleep. Tom couldn’t believe his eyes! His grandparents had told him stories about the fairies, but he assumed they were just fairy tales, not actual fairies. But this was one in the flesh—an honest to goodness leprechaun!
He knew what that meant. If he could capture the leprechaun, the fairy creature would be obligated to lead him to a buried treasure. For a poor farm boy, this was the chance of a lifetime. Tom seized the opportunity…and the leprechaun. (The leprechaun was sleeping after all. It wasn’t that hard.)
Startled awake, the leprechaun immediately understood his mistake. Sighing, he agreed to lead Tom deep into the forest to the tree, under which, a treasure was buried. Tom was overjoyed. This is what he had always waited for! Tom could finally leave the farm and find adventure in the big city! But in his haste, Tom forgot a shovel and a wheelbarrow. There was no way he could dig up the treasure. Even if he did, there was no way to transport it back to his home.
Tom racked his brain; there had to be an answer. And then, he had it! From his pocket, Tom extracted a bright red ribbon. Tying it around the base of the tree, he knew it would guide him back to this exact spot. Before he released the leprechaun, however, Clever Tom showed why he earned his nickname: he extracted a promise from the fairy (who, being a fairy, could not tell a lie) that the leprechaun would not remove the ribbon from the tree. Satisfied with the positive response, Tom released the leprechaun and raced home to gather his supplies.
When Tom returned, his heart sank. No, the leprechaun had not removed the ribbon. He promised he wouldn’t, after all. But he did tie an identical ribbon on every other tree for miles in every direction. Clever Tom wasn’t the clever one after all.
Three Forms of Information Manipulation
This story has several morals, but let’s reimagine those lessons for our purposes. Clever Tom and the Leprechaun is a story about information manipulation in its three forms.
Did the leprechaun prevent people from telling their stories? No. They did not censor the information. Although church officials at the time of the original tale in the 19th century often discouraged these types of tales, the stories nonetheless got out.
Did the leprechaun make the buried treasure difficult to find? Yes! You needed to satisfy a certain set of conditions—and the first was capturing a crafty and quick leprechaun—to learn this information. In this case, Clever Tom lucked out when he found the leprechaun sleeping. This is information friction—deliberately making facts hard to find.
How did the leprechaun prevent Tom from collecting the treasure? He did not remove it. In fact, he hid it in plain sight…among thousands of other ribbons. That’s information flooding—hiding critical facts in an ocean of irrelevant ones.
As it turns out, the leprechaun might have a new career as an official in the Chinese government.
The People’s Republic Of China
When most people in Western countries think about the “Chinese” internet, they’ve probably heard of products and services strikingly similar to their U.S. counterparts: Alibaba (Amazon), Xiaomi (Apple or Samsung), or Sina Weibo (Twitter). There are critical differences, of course. Chinese counterparts filling the same market niches serve a far larger group of people. China has four times the number of citizens as the United States. More pointedly, those products and services operate under the aegis of the Chinese government, submitting to its guidelines regarding information monitoring and censorship.
Those who know more about the Chinese internet (often those who have traveled or worked in mainland China) criticize the government for its “crackdowns” on “dissidents” and their rampant censorship of any information unfavorable to the communist party. While there is evidence of these actions, their information is limited in scope.
Does anyone in the United States truly know what happens inside the so-called Great Firewall?
It turns out, someone does. Gary King, Weatherhead University Professor at Harvard University, and his team at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, are a prolific bunch, focusing their considerable research talent on discovering exactly the answer to that question (gking.harvard.edu). King’s team began with the assumption that the Chinese government copies American internet and technology companies, and then controls (via censorship) their activities to keep a watchful and constant eye on each citizen.
What they discovered casts considerable doubt on our assumptions. Even how they learned it was ingenious. King’s team tracked information posted to popular Chinese social media sites and then watched what happened. It may be a small amount of time before a computer or human censor could act on a piece of content, but it was measurable. If they could reverse engineer the censorship priorities, they could better understand the government’s purpose in manipulating information.
At the risk of vast oversimplification of a sophisticated approach, here are their conclusions:
- Censorship is real, but it’s limited. Yes, some types of content were routinely censored. That content included posts critical of the censors themselves, certain hot-button issues, and “adult” content (yes, exactly what you’re thinking). What surprised them was what was not censored. Criticism of the government itself routinely was left alone. As was most commentary on social issues, and even foreign news. That was surprising. If censorship was not the go-to method, what was it?
- Information friction played a larger role. Remember, information friction refers to the process of making access to data just a little bit more difficult. King’s team found that less-desirable information proved slower to access (Westerners will understand this well: virtual private network—or VPN—services often are quite slow). Internet users value speed over most everything else; they will choose the faster source over the slower one most of the time.
- As did information flooding. King’s team also found evidence of the so-called 50-cent army, named for the small amount of money they make for each pro-government post they make on social media. These posts crowd out other content, forcing all other information off the scrolling, timeline-oriented social media feeds we’re all used to. In other words, people could scroll through hundreds of posts to find the one they want, and may do so on occasion, but will not do so consistently. In this way, friction and flooding work together to drown out content the Chinese government deems undesirable…and conversely, promote content it wants people to know.
From this study, King’s team could determine the priorities of the Chinese government about its information-gathering and management machine. In a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, there is no way to proactively monitor all government officials and activities in its vast bureaucracy. It needs information, and social media posts are an excellent way to get it. Some critics counter that the idea of “Big Brother” (an American, not Chinese idea, by the way) encourages self-censorship. But this defeats the purpose. If people can’t talk, the government won’t know. Hence, outright censorship is rarer than we might think. If the government doesn’t like something, friction and flooding are far more effective ways to manage the situation.
However, there is one thing that will trip the censors: Collective action. King’s team discovered that you can complain all you like—in fact, that’s encouraged—but if you want to organize your friends to act for change, you are likely to be censored in some creative ways. Yes, your post might be removed, but it is more likely to be dead-ended. In other words, you may be able to publish your post…but your friends may never see it. You get to say what you like and “get it off your chest”, but not make changes. That’s the government’s job. Not yours.
Clearly, the Chinese government has a different set of priorities than U.S. or Western governments, but are they really that different? Do information friction and flooding work (or work differently) in the West as well?
The United States of America
The United States does censor information. The government can classify certain types of information for security purposes, but those instances are comparatively rare. However, the government does indeed make certain information harder to get (friction) and bury information in a sea of less salient data (flooding). We can see that at work at all levels of government, from local officials requiring citizens to visit their government office during business hours to request information in person, to the highest officials sending myriad news releases (or dozens of late-night Tweets) to obscure important new facts.
So yes, at a certain level, information friction and flooding are part of the Western government toolbox. However, unlike China, the U.S. government faces pushback from both ordinary citizens and organized groups (e.g. the American Civil Liberties Union) who push for open records laws and easier access to information. Many information professionals have submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and are familiar with the process.
If governmental data were all that was in discussion, we could end here. It is not. Unlike China, information friction and flooding are common techniques of Western organizations. We rarely recognize them as such, and therefore fail to recognize and mitigate their impact. Let’s dissect common techniques to illustrate the impact of information friction and flooding in the United States.
- Friction: Catch and Kill. This is a common technique used routinely by tabloid news organizations. When a powerful/wealthy person or organization wants the details of a story “buried,” they may approach a tabloid organization. The tabloid will then approach key subjects with knowledge of the story, offering them payment for exclusive publishing rights. Once the contract is signed (always including a strict non-disclosure clause), the tabloid will exercise its right not to publish the story. Yes, other persons or organizations might have supplemental details to the story, but the tabloids are smart. They “lock up” (or “catch and kill”) the critical sources of information, thereby making stories of embarrassment or wrongdoing much more difficult to investigate.
Other examples of information friction include:
- Demanding a formal request submission for “free” information,
- burying detailed webpages in confusing menu structure,
- using “nofollow” code to stymie search engines,
- limiting access to information in native languages,
- and saving text documents as images to prevent easy machine-readability.
- Flooding: Ratings Reductions. Celebrities, restaurants, and other service professionals are often the victim of organized groups of people conspiring to “down rate” their product or service on popular social media ratings sites (Amazon, Yelp, Netflix, Uber, eBay, etc.) using a “flood” of negative/one-star reviews. There is nothing explicitly illegal here, although these services try hard to make this technique difficult to execute. However, determined groups often easily circumvent these protections.
Other examples of information flooding include:
- Releasing large amounts of data at one time (often during a weekend or over a holiday),
- presenting all pieces of information as equally valuable and of equal weight,
- following the letter of the law on mandatory disclosures and releasing thousands of pages of poorly formatted documents (also an example of friction…in fact, the two often work well together.)
What You Can Do About Information Friction and Information Flooding
I wrote the original version of this article for an online publication specifically targeting so-called “Information Professionals.” They include legal librarians, academics, data scientists, and research journalists.
Frankly, I was surprised by how surprised they were regarding the sophistication of information manipulation. If the professionals are confused, what hope does the average consumer of information have to sort out what’s happening?
Paradoxically, I think it is easier for consumers to find and counter information manipulation that it is for professionals working inside organizations. Think about it: are you going to risk losing your job by calling out bad behavior? Yes, whistleblowers exist, but the average worker has a mortgage to pay and health insurance to keep (this is a big deal in the United States, foreign readers).
Here are a few ways to know when you could be a victim of information friction:
- Are you being asked to submit a formal request for information that should be publicly available by law or statute?
- Most websites are easy and intuitive to navigate … but when you get to the “disclosures” section, does the navigation turn into a labyrinth of dead links and confusing language?
- Does your search engine find zero results?
- Does the information exist, but only behind a login or paywall?
- Is information available only in one language, when the audience clearly speaks multiple languages and lives in multiple countries?
- Is the information available, but saved as an un-tagged “picture file” (e.g. a PNG or JPG) to make it difficult for auto-translation or text-recognition tools to work?
None of these techniques are necessarily underhanded. There could be good (and legal) reasons for putting up roadblocks to finding information. Just know that when you see them, be careful. They are ways that organizations can claim to be providing you information, but also making it difficult for you to get it. They know that most people won’t try. They can have their cake and eat it too.
Perhaps even more common than information friction is it doppelganger: Here are a few ways to know when you could be a victim of information flooding:
- Do you need to wade through hundreds (or thousands) or pieces of information to find what you’re looking for?
- Is information released over a weekend or holiday?
- Is critical information buried in the middle of a larger data set, not at the front? (In other words, not in journalist “invested pyramid” style?)
- Does your information come in the form of a flood of late-night tweets or Facebook posts?
Again, organizations could argue that it is not their job to be journalists, nor is it their responsibility to cull out the most important information – potentially embarrassing themselves in the process.
If you see these techniques at work, you may or may not be manipulated. But I think it’s better to understand them, recognize them, and question them.
Not A New Story
If all of this seems frustrating, take heart. We’ve been struggling with friction and flooding for a long time. Linda Shute retold an earlier story, The Field of the Boliauns, originally written as part of an anthology of Celtic fairy tales by Joseph Jacobs in 1892. (In the original story, the leprechaun hadn’t fallen asleep, he had passed out. Stories are always true to the morals of their times, and the late 19th century was the heyday of the temperance movement.) He based his work on earlier oral tradition dating back to medieval Ireland and England. Those tales made it across the English Channel by way of Roman Legionaries recounting stories of Julius Caesar and his contemporaries in the Roman Senate in the first century before the common era.
In other words, information friction and information flooding are nothing new. Recognizing and mitigating their impacts has been a game of cat and mouse we’ve been playing for the better part of two millennia. That’s not to say we should give up the struggle, but rather that we’re in good historical company.
About Jason Voiovich
Jason’s arrival in marketing was doomed from birth. He was born into a family of artists, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. Frankly, it’s lucky he didn’t end up as a circus performer. He’s sure he would have fallen off the tightrope by now. His father was an advertising creative director. One grandfather manufactured the first disposable coffee filters in pre-Castro Cuba. Another grandfather invented the bazooka. Yet another invented Neapolitan ice cream (really!). He was destined to advertise the first disposable ice cream grenade launcher. But the ice cream just kept melting!
He took bizarre ideas like these into the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It should surprise no one that they are all embarrassed to have let him in.
These days, instead of trying to invent novelty snack dispensers, Jason has dedicated his career to finding marketing’s north star, refocusing it on building healthy relationships between consumers and businesses, between patients and clinicians, and between citizens and organizations. That’s a tall order in a data-driven world. But it’s crucial, and here’s why: As technology advances, it becomes ordinary and expected. As relationships and trust expand, they become stronger and more resilient. Our next great leaps forward are just as likely to come from advances in humanity as they are advances in technology.
If you care about that mission as well, he invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn. If you’re interested in sharing your research, please take the extra step and reach out to him personally at jasonvoiovich (at) gmail (dot) com. For even more, please visit his blog at https://jasontvoiovich.com/ and sign up for his mailing list for original research, book news, & fresh insights.
Thank you! Gracias! 谢谢!
Your fellow human.
Note: A version of this article was originally published on Online Searcher in their September/October 2018 edition.