Beset by advertisements and noxious information, our attention is increasingly fractured.
Everyone knows search engine algorithms shunt you to incendiary or prurient sites to increase their ad revenue, yet that strategy remains remarkably effective. The tsunami of information, disinformation and misinformation online can overwhelm you. You may need new strategies to discern which sources are worth your time. Writing in The Conversation, a philosopher, two cognitive scientists and an educational scientist – Ralph Hertwig, Anastasia Kozyreva, Sam Wineburg and Stephan Lewandowsky – propose that web users apply “critical ignoring” as much as critical thinking. If you actively choose what to ignore, they insist, you’ll retain more bandwidth to attend to and savor more meaningful material.
- Search engines are designed to take you to obnoxious or lascivious sites.
- Critical thinking is no longer sufficient for coping with information overload.
- Critical ignoring enables you to become a more effective information manager.
Search engines are designed to take you to obnoxious or lascivious sites.
Most of the platforms you use to search the internet are designed to seduce your attention away from your intended tasks. Their main goal is to keep you online in order to generate revenue. To achieve that goal, they engineer their algorithms to shunt you to any sites that will keep you online longer, including inflammatory, outrageous and offensive sites you most likely would not come across on your own. In effect, search engines were “conceived in sin.”
“The web is an informational paradise and a hellscape at the same time. A boundless wealth of high-quality information is available at our fingertips right next to a ceaseless torrent of low-quality, distracting, false and manipulative information.”
These tactics prove amazingly effective. In 2013, for example, hashtags on Twitter – now X – retained their popularity for 1.5 times longer than they retained popularity in 2016,indicating that society’s collective attention span diminished and is diminishing. With dis- and misinformation so rampant on the web and biased search engines providing all users with their primary access to internet content, web users require new cognitive strategies to wade through the garbage, find the gold amid the dross and maintain their sanity.
Critical thinking is no longer sufficient for coping with information overload.
Most people learn in school to read texts carefully and closely to evaluate their information. This is a vital skill, but woefully insufficient for digital reality. The internet contains far too much content for anyone to read much of it critically. Most of it is barely worth reading at all. All users struggle to identify reliable sites with content that is worth their time and attention.
Critical ignoring enables you to become a more effective information manager.
To read the internet effectively, you need a new skill – critical ignoring – as much as you need the established skill of critical thinking. Critical ignoring means actively and deliberately choosing the material and sites you ignore. This enables you to choose where to focus your precious limited attention.
“Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practicing mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance…Without it, we will drown in a sea of information that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, misleading and harmful.”
Critical ignoring relies on using three main strategies:
- “Self-nudging” – Design your digital information to serve your needs. Turn off certain notifications or messages, or look at them only at specified times. Refuse to share your personal data to limit the number of targeted ads the web sends your way.
- “Lateral reading” – Professional fact-checkers use lateral reading to deal with masses of information. Begin by opening multiple tabs to search for information about the site you intend to explore. Read multiple opinions and facts about this site to confirm its credibility before delving into its contents. Don’t read a website until you screen it with this comparative technique. You may have difficulty adapting to lateral reading because it runs counter to the critical thinking you learned to employ in school. For example, if you were applying critical thinking, you would determine a website’s veracity by reading it closely and carefully. Unfortunately, a seductive or flashy web page can lure almost anyone. That’s why lateral reading – using the web to check up on the web – is such a valuable technique.
- “Don’t feed the trolls” – Extremists know that their antics draw the attention of search engine algorithms and that luring people into spurious debates brings them the attention they crave. So don’t read their pages and never engage with them.
About the Authors
Ralph Hertwig is the Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, where Anastasia Kozyreva is a cognitive scientist. Sam Wineburg is a Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. Stephan Lewandowsky is the Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol.