The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption
Clay Johnson

Ended: Aug. 17, 2013

The Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism[29] estimates that Fox News spends 72% of its budget on program expenses (expenses tied to specific programs, like host salaries) and 27.8% of its expenses on administrative expenses (things like newsrooms). CNN, on the other hand, spends 56% of its expenses in the administrative category, and 43.9% on program expenses. CNN has a total staff of 4,000 people working in its studios and 47 bureaus. Fox News has 1,272 members of staff in just 17 bureaus. The strategy is simple: it’s cheaper to pay one media personality a two million dollar salary than it is to pay 100 journalists and analysts $40,000 a year. What’s better, people like hearing their beliefs confirmed more than they like hearing the facts. For Murdoch and Ailes, it must have been like discovering the McDonald’s business model. People like french fries more and they’re cheaper to make than steamed broccoli! That’s sound business.
Food companies want to provide you with the most profitable food possible that will keep you eating it — and the result is our supermarket aisles filled with unimaginable ways to construct and consume corn. Media companies want to provide you with the most profitable information possible that will keep you tuned in, and the result is airwaves filled with fear and affirmation. Those are the things that keep the institutional shareholders that own these firms happy.
What’s different today is that new tyranny of the majority is more efficient than it used to be. It’s driven in real time by the tiny but meaningful transactions we have with our media providers every day. That’s why the world of politics is dividing into the world of MSNBC and DailyKos versus Fox and Andrew Breitbart. We now have the option to participate in the news realities we want to tune into, with the tribes we elect to be part of.
Huffington Post is also into these shenanigans. On any given day, the Huffington Post’s homepage is a bizarre sight: a defense of New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman coupled with the “Top Embarrassing Photos of Obama’s Vacation.” “A Computer Chip Mimics the Human Brain,” it tells me, next to the warning: “Don’t Go Shopping with People Harder Than You.” Along the sidebar, we’re treated to images of celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and “make out sessions.” These things are there, not because of Arianna Huffington’s contempt for the public, but because we click on them, and we click on them more than we click on anything else. The Huffington Post is a reflection of its readership’s interests. In just writing this bit about the site, I’ve found myself lost in its enormous sea of link-bait. There’s so much I need to know that I didn’t know I needed to know! The Huffington Post has turned content-creation on its head, using technology to figure out what it is that people want, and finding the fastest way to give it to them. Just like the Cheesecake Factory tests its delicious cheesecakes in a test lab to make sure they’re delicious before they are set in front of you, the Huffington Post uses your behavior to understand what you want. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory though, they can do it in real-time.
The intent of The AOL Way is to decrease the costs and increase the profitability of the content the company produces. According to the plan, each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and at the bottom of the list, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write 5 to 10 stories per day, each with an average cost of $84, and a gross margin (from advertising) of 50%. In short, it’s the job of the writer to produce popular content as cheaply and quickly as possible. That explains why the front page of features the headline “Watch: Orangutan Gets Even With Rude Lady”; asks me to guess the age of the world’s oldest female bodybuilder; and offers me “Ten Bizarre Mosquito Prevention Tips.”
eHow is owned by another content farm called Demand Media — probably the largest, in terms of workforce, of all content farms. They supply the content to eHow, Lance Armstrong’s, and Tyra Banks’ Beyond their own sites, Demand Media also provides farmed content to a variety of websites across the Internet. In terms of traffic, Demand Media’s sites receive more unique visits than Fox News’s online presence and the Washington Post combined. It’s the 18th largest property on the Internet. Nearly four million more people online visit a Demand Media website than visit Craigslist in a given month.[37] Content farms are big businesses. As of this writing, AOL is worth $1.2 billion. Demand Media is worth $663 million. Associated Content — the content farm once billed “The People’s Media Company” — sits as part of
Google is both an accomplice and a benefactor of content farms. On one hand, Google is a search company. It has a vested interest in making its search experience high quality: if you search for how to change the oil in a 1976 Chevy Nova, Google wants you to get good, clear advice as a result of your search. On the other hand, Google is an advertising company. As of 2011, Google controlled 43.5% of total online advertising spending. Lining the sides of sites like Demand Media are advertisements provided by Google’s ad network: Google’s getting a cut of the site’s advertising revenues, to the tune of millions of dollars. For now, Google is opting to take the high road and the long-term view. It’s in Google’s interest to give great results to its users — having the Web littered with poor-quality information sources ends up making Google itself less relevant. Thus Google is taking steps to increase incentives to reduce the farming sites’ influence on Google search results.
In early 2011, it released new search technology code-named Panda to curb the effectiveness of content farms. The effect: 17% of Demand Media’s keywords were dropped from the first page of Google’s search results. The New York Times dubbed it “Google’s war on nonsense.”
There’s also an ethics problem Google must answer. Google can’t overstep their bounds in the war on nonsense in deciding what is nonsense and what is not. Should Google start providing too much editorial guidance on its top ten results, for instance, it could run into political problems: a search for “climate change” that isn’t seen as fair by either side of that debate may trigger a conversation about regulation. Around Washington there are already whispers of “search neutrality” on this very subject.[38]
In an effort to cut costs, journalists often become more filters than reporters, succumbing to the torrents of spin heading their way, and passing on what’s said by the scores of PR consultants. Rather than report the news, they simply copy what’s in a press release and paste it into their stories. It’s a kind of commercially advantageous and permissible plagiarism called churnalism.
He demonstrated the same thing repeatedly, with a story of a fake “chastity garter” that secretly texts a boyfriend when she’s cheating on him, and a fake story of how the British Prime Minister’s cat Larry had been stolen from its rightful owner. In every case, the story was carried, without fact checking, and largely copied and pasted into the press. It’s a widespread problem — and not just the problem of hoaxters either. Researchers at Great Britain’s Cardiff University found that upwards of 60% of press articles and 34% of broadcast stories were the results of churnalism.
During the Dean campaign, the delusion that resulted from my poor information diet was a cognitive version of this disease: reality dysmorphia. I haven’t met a single campaign operative here in Washington, D.C., on either side, that didn’t have at least a mild case of it. This kind of delusion comes from psychological phenomena like heuristics, confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance. It turns out our brains are remarkable energy
One such nefarious heuristic is called confirmation bias. It’s the psychological hypothesis that once we begin to believe something, we unconsciously begin seeking out information to reinforce that belief, often in the absence of facts. In fact, our biases can grow to be so strong that facts to the contrary will actually strengthen our wrong beliefs. In 2005, Emory University professor Drew Westen and his colleagues recruited 15 self-described strong Democrats and 15 strong Republicans for a sophisticated test. They used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to study how partisan voters reacted to negative remarks about their party or candidate. Westen and his colleagues found that when these subjects processed “emotionally threatening information” about their preferred candidates, the parts of the brain associated with reasoning shut down and the parts responsible for emotions flared up.[41] Westen’s research indicates that once we grow biased enough, we lose our capacity to change our minds.
The results were fascinating: after reading the article, the conservatives in the study were still more inclined to believe that tax cuts increase revenue as a result of reading the correction. Hearing the truth made conservatives more likely to agree with the misperception. The facts backfired. We already know that things like confirmation bias make us seek out information that we agree with. But it’s also the case that once we’re entrenched in a belief, the facts will not change our minds.
These problems don’t stem from a lack of information. They stem from a new kind of ignorance: one that results in the selection and consumption of information that is demonstrably wrong. We don’t trust “the news” but we do trust “our news,” in other words, the news we want to believe in. And that’s a far more potent weapon than our classic view of ignorance. In 1969, the tobacco company Brown & Williamson came to the
Big Tobacco figured something out: it didn’t have to worry about people who smoked and didn’t watch the news. They’d keep smoking. It needed to create doubt in the minds of smokers who do watch the news to keep them as customers, and it would need to create doubt in the minds of the non-smoking public in order to keep government away from the regulation of secondhand smoke.
2007, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists — the last major scientific body to reject climate change’s existence and cause — changed its mind. Climate scientists reached consensus: global warming is “unequivocal” and mankind is the primary cause.[54] Since then, no recognized scientific body has dissented from the theory[55] or rejected the idea of climate change. In the five years since consensus was reached by the scientific community, the number of people doubting climate change’s occurrence has increased. When the battle for scientific minds ended, the doubt production machines shifted into overdrive. In 1998, a public relations representative for the American Petroleum Institute named Joe Walker had foresight. He wrote an eight-page memo suggesting that the institute spend $5 million over two years to “maximize the impact of scientific views” consistent with theirs and noted that “public opinion is open to change on climate change.”[56] Fast forward to 2007, the Guardian reported that the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank funded by companies like ExxonMobil and Phillip Morris, started offering $10,000 “grants” plus travel expenses to scientists who would publish articles emphasizing the shortcomings of theories of climate change.[57]
He defines agnotology as the study of culturally induced doubt, particularly through the production of seemingly factual data. It’s a modern form of manufactured ignorance. Agnotological ignorance does not affect those who don’t tune in. It affects those who do. At the University of New Hampshire, Professor Lawrence Hamilton polled 2,051 people across different regions in the United States. He asked them how informed they were about climate change, where they stood on the issue, and what their political party was. The results shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve read this far: those who claimed to know the most about climate change (as a result of consuming news or scientific data) had the most divergent opinions of its cause. Those who claimed to
In 2008, Pew found a similar result around the climate change debate: 19% of Republicans with college degrees believed that global warming was happening because of human activity, versus 31% for Republicans without college degrees. Eighty-five percent of Democrats with college degrees believed that global warming was happening because of human activity versus 52% of those without degrees. The more informed someone is, the more hardened their beliefs become; whether they’re correct is an entirely different matter.
“One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)”[
Climate change is a perfect example of epistemic closure: science is liberal; climate change is from science; thus climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Every news outlet that reports on it must also be corrupted by liberal influence, and thus can be dismissed. But the left succumbs to epistemic closure too. Look at the left’s unyielding relationship to organized labor: no institution with that much money is unquestionably good, yet you’ll find many a left-wing operative in Washington looking at you sternly if you question a union’s motives. Talk with a liberal about former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s idea that teachers ought to be kept on the payrolls based on their performance, rather than their seniority, and you’ll find yourself in a screaming match pretty quickly.
With its general distrust of pharmaceutical companies, the left is still listening to the likes of Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy on the now-settled question of whether measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination causes autism. (It doesn’t.) The left still bristles at the question of nuclear energy, though for every person that dies from nuclear energy, 4,000 people die from coal production.[61] Epistemic closure is a tool that empowers agnotological ignorance. As certain information is produced, all other sources of information are dismissed as unreliable or worse, conspiratorial.
You don’t need the liberal or conservative media to make you ignorant. It can come from the production and consumption of information from your friends, and the personalization of that information. The friends we choose and the places we go all give us a new kind of bubble within which to consume information. My experience of delusion on the Dean campaign wasn’t just about my media consumption, but also the association with people who thought, consumed, and believed exactly as I did. We all live in our own social bubbles, which we create and empower through our social relationships — and interestingly, new research says that these relationships have profound impacts on us. The friends we select, and the communities in which we work, play, and love serve as filters for us. It’s too high of a cognitive and ego burden to surround ourselves with people that we disagree with. If you’re a Facebook
Personalization is just a mirror that reflects our behavior back to us, and while some might argue that the best way to make our reflections look better is to change the shape of the mirror, the fairest way to do it is to change what it’s reflecting. We build filters around us with every friend we make, and every time we click. Without careful consideration, we risk throwing ourselves into more agnotological bubbles, and drifting farther away from reality.
The dangerous thing about information obesity is that it’s a bit more nefarious. It’s difficult to tell if you are suffering from information obesity or have poor information consumption habits. It’s impossible to know if you’re ignorant and as we’ve learned, even if confronted with our own ignorance, it’s likely only to make us run out and consume more misinformation in order to avoid being wrong.
Socrates’ view on this was simple: just accept your own ignorance as the only thing to be certain about. This view is important to keep in mind, and a healthy foundation for an information diet.
When I met with her for the writing of this book, our meeting involved a few gadgets — the emWave2 and the StressEraser, small little contraptions that, when hooked up to your earlobe or the tip of your finger, show you how well you’re breathing, and what your heart rate looks like. They’re pretty simple devices that use a variety of blinking lights and sounds to calm you down and help you achieve an optimal rate of breath.[
You can see the same fervor in the eyes of political activists. Look in the eyes of a Code Pink supporter on the left, or someone looking for Barack Obama’s birth certificate on the right, and you’ll see the same kind of radical devotion to what they want to believe over the facts — and you’ll also likely find that most of their social network is comprised of people who feel the same way. Brand affiliations work this way, too. Attend a major corporate developer conference like Apple’s WWDC, Google’s I/O, or Facebook’s F8, and you’ll find the latest technologies and advances from these companies paired with sermons in the form of keynotes not just telling you why their software is the future, but why the competition’s values are wrong and misleading.
Having attended the keynotes from both companies, I can see why the attendees of the conferences thought that way. For them, this wasn’t about the use of a phone. This was about the triumph of good over evil. Through the lens of a charged up Googleist, I was but a poor infant letting Apple decide what was good for me. To the Appleist, I was dumb enough to fall for Google’s corporate messaging. It’s West Side Story. About phones.
He is one of the healthier people I’ve met, and while his exercise regimen was part of it, it was his attitude about food that gave him his edge. My favorite thing about Ed was his total contempt for carbohydrates. At lunch, if he managed to get served a biscuit as a side item for something he ordered, he’d scowl at that biscuit until it went away (usually by way of me) like it was some form of dirty filth that had invaded his tray. That biscuit wasn’t there on his plate to tempt him. It was there to kill him: a little, fluffy, white, buttery enemy waiting to pounce at any moment. But did he throw away his biscuit? No. Then he wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on it, lest it try and escape. As though he was persistently testing his will, Ed would keep the biscuit on his desk to sit and grow stale as a frequent affirmation that he didn’t need that pile of empty carbs.
Imagine a world where liberals stare at Keith Olbermann’s show in the airport, not eagerly awaiting a confirmation of their beliefs, but in contempt for what these shows really are: biscuits in broccoli’s clothing. Or conservatives asking to shut off the O’Reilly Factor at the bar because it may ensnare them in a closed epistemic loop. Or Apple fans going on a gadget blog fast for the weeks surrounding the latest iPhone announcements in order to make a more rational decision about how to spend their next $600. Those are the decisions that people who are trying to have healthy information diets make. We should be staring at these dopamine delivery services with as much contempt as Ed does his biscuits.
We need to get something straight before we jump in to what a healthy information diet looks like, though: fasting is not dieting. It’s good to disconnect — everybody needs a good vacation. But unplugging, “Internet sabbaticals,” “social media vacations,” and “email bankruptcies” are all ways to avoid the real problem: our own bad habits. Ask any nutritionist, and they’ll tell you that a diet isn’t about not eating — it’s about changing your consumption habits.
biology, the trophic pyramid is a simple construct we use to think about how energy flows through the food chain. In the food world, the people eating strictly at the bottom of the trophic pyramid are called vegans — and that’s exactly what we want to emulate with our information consumption. Building on that philosophy, I coined a term in 2010 — infoveganism — and started a blog called to describe this lifestyle. Infovegans try to emulate the consumption habits and ethical habits of vegans in the world of information.
Agree with the vegans or not, you have to respect their stance. It captures perfectly what we’re trying to do here with an information diet: respect the content providers that consistently provide us with good info-nutrients by sticking only to those providers, and avoiding everything else.
Being an infovegan means mastering data literacy — knowing where to get appropriate data, and knowing what to do with it, using the right kinds of tools. It means working to make sure you’re not put into situations where you’re forced to consume overly processed information. It means that when you are consuming processed information, you consistently check the ingredients — if you’re reading news on a new medicare proposal in Congress, it means you want to take a look at the bill itself, not just what the Huffington Post has to say about it.
Remember the trophic pyramid? It turns out that as energy makes its way up the food chain, its transfer gets less efficient. Consumers at each level of the pyramid convert only about 10% of the chemical energy from the step below them on the food chain. The further up the chain you go, the less energy you get. This is why we don’t usually eat a lot of other carnivores — we tend to eat either plants or things that eat mostly plants (like cows, chickens, and pigs), but we don’t tend to eat things that eat cows, chickens, or pigs (like coyotes, lions, or hawks). Agriculture can’t sustain the cost it would take to transfer that kind of energy up the food chain for all of us.
Presuming you have access to a computer and the Internet, I’ve boiled down what I mean by data literacy into four major components — you need to know how to search, you need to know how to filter and process, you need to know how to produce, and you need to know how to synthesize. You may think that you’re already digitally data literate, and that you possess all of these skills. And you may be right, this chapter may be remedial for you. But I encourage even the most profoundly critical thinkers, the most brilliant statisticians, and the most talented writers to revisit what it really means to be data literate.
Knowing, for instance, that Google offers not only web search, but also the ability to search through scientific papers, patents, and laws through gets you closer to the facts. And though most scholarly papers, even ones funded by taxpayer dollars, sadly sit behind paywalls, it’s possible to find the title of the research paper you want to read, search for the title, and find either the document itself or a decent take on it.
We must judge good sources through filters such as: what is the intent of the author? Is it to inform you, or is it to make a point? How does the information make you feel? Is your intent in consuming this information to confirm your beliefs or find the truth? Are you capable of viewing the information objectively? The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, partnered with the Aspen Institute, provides a good overview of critical thinking skills. In the Knight Commission’s report[77] (available for free online, and a good read if you’re interested), they describe this skill as the ability to determine “message quality, veracity, credibility, and point of view, while considering potential effects or consequences of messages.”
Understanding how to use a spreadsheet like Microsoft’s Excel, Apple’s Numbers, or Google’s Spreadsheets will help you sort through and see the facts better. There is also a variety of other tools that move beyond the spreadsheet that make it easy to sort through information; these include Google’s Fusion Tables, Socrata, and Factual. They take time and patience to learn, but when coupled with the enormous amount of public data that’s now available online, they give us incredible new opportunities to start seeing our world more clearly through the lens of data.
Content creation and digital self-expression, through the creation of text, audio, or video content, are critical components of a healthy information diet. Content creation and publication are a critical part of literacy because they help us to understand better what we say, both through the internal reflection it takes to make our findings comprehensible to others, and through the public feedback we get from putting our content in front of others. The creation of this book — the writing and editing of it — has given me more clarity on the message within it. Many paragraphs have been tested: I’ve taken paragraphs that I thought may be controversial, copied them into Google+ and Facebook, and pursued dialog with those people who were willing to engage with me. It’s helped me strengthen some of my arguments, see things more clearly, and more importantly, recognize when I’m being nonsensical.
The last component of data literacy is synthesis. Once we retrieve information, filter it, and publish it, we must be able to synthesize the ideas and concepts of others back into our ideas. Synthesis isn’t entertaining, and we’d all rather argue or be entertained. View publication as a chance to get feedback and a chance to make your ideas and thoughts better — an opportunity for education as much as an opportunity to educate.
One way to do this in modern operating systems is to create a new user account on the same computer you use, but without access to all the software that keeps you distracted. That’s how I’ve set myself up — I have one user called “Work” and another called “Play.” This gives me a container that I can put my mindless web surfing habits into, and another kept free from distraction. Turning these interruption technologies off isn’t enough, though. You’ll also need to arm your web browser with tools to help eliminate distractions while you’re trying to surf the Web. You can’t very well be expected to accomplish a Google search for valuable information when, if you’re a member of Google’s social network, Google+, there’s a bright red notification bar sitting there waiting to be clicked on. Fortunately, there’s a browser extension for Google Chrome and Firefox to rid you of many of the Web’s distractions. On, I’ve catalogued many of them for you — but I’m certain I’m not going to be able to keep up with the ever-expanding universe of interruption technology. So here’s a simple rule of thumb to live by: if it has a number by it, eliminate it.
Let’s go ahead and get rid of those advertisements on the Web. Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer all have extensions that will do their best to block advertisements. Though they’re not perfect — and they’re very much an arms race against advertising-based content providers — they work well enough, and the overall reduction in exposure to advertising is probably good for your head and your bank account.
Google has a tool for this in Gmail called Priority Inbox, but my personal favorite is called It works on most major email providers, and doesn’t just mark what email is important — it actually takes the email that’s not important, and dismisses it from your inbox into another folder. This way, the temptation isn’t even there. Don’t worry about missing anything. Close to the end of every working day, you’ll get an email digest of all the emails Sanebox put into your “Later” folder so that you can go back and check to see what you missed.
For this book, I worked in 15-minute work intervals with 2-minute breaks three times an hour, and a 9-minute email check at the end of every hour. I stretched, used the restroom, or otherwise didn’t look at the screen for the full two minutes, I found this helped my mind reflect and decompress, so that I could get back to writing. Sometimes those two-minute breaks turned into five-minute breaks; sometimes those 15-minute work spans turned into 20-minute ones — I’m not a stickler for time anymore. I also did only four hours in a row of this focused task work at a time, followed by at least an hour break that was entirely away from the computer screen. I tried to schedule my day so that I accomplished all the task-oriented computer work I needed to accomplish by noon, then I could take an hour for lunch. If I had meetings in any given day, they were scheduled for after lunch and if at all possible, back-to-back and directly after lunch. If my schedule allowed, then I was back at it after the meetings were over. It’s worth noting that I’ve started to apply this
The other good thing about this method is that it forces us to consciously measure the time we spend working on a computer. By building in the interval metronome, we become keenly aware of how much time has gone by, and how much time we have left to get done what we need to get done. No longer will you look up and wonder where the day went. You’ve used your executive function and accounted for it. Finally, remember that you’re measuring your success. We set up RescueTime for a reason: to make sure that what you were doing works for you. Make sure, after a week or two of doing this, that your productivity number is headed in the right direction, and that it stays that way. All our brains and minds are unique, and though
Laughter is important to a healthy information diet because it has all kinds of incredible health benefits. It turns out laughter increases our heart rate in a good way, increases our cardiovascular health, and burns calories. Some science shows that laughter may cause increased blood flow to the brain and decrease stress (thus boosting our immune systems), may normalize blood sugar levels, and may help us sleep better.
Humor tends to be a useful mechanism for figuring out when you’re overly attached to information, too. If you can’t laugh at something, it likely means you’re not flexible with the information — that you take it so seriously that your mind cannot be changed. While it’s good to have these stances on some topics (say, the Holocaust or slavery), if you can’t laugh at Lebron James jokes, you might be taking your love of the Miami Heat a little too seriously. Studying humor tends to make whatever might be funny no longer so, so I’ll leave it at this: lighten up.
But, as I’ve noted before, the Internet moves faster than an author or a publisher, so if you want the latest and greatest resources, please visit and visit the wiki where I, along with the community of other readers, will keep an updated list of reliable sources at the bottom of the trophic pyramid.