A photograph of a newspaper with Trump’s mouth torn out.
Not all information is good information.
Chapter 2 Foundations

The peril of information

by Amy J. Ko

When I was in high school, I was a relatively good student. All but one of my grades were A’s, I was deeply curious about mathematics and computer science, and I couldn’t wait to go to college to learn more. My divorced parents weren’t particularly wealthy, and so I worked many part-time jobs to save up for college applications and AP exam fees, bagging groceries, babysitting, and tutoring. It didn’t leave much time for extracurriculars. I was sure that colleges would understand my circumstances and see my promise. But when the decisions came back, I’d only been admitted to two places: my public state university, and the University of Washington, but the latter only offered a $500 loan, and I had no college savings. My dreams were shattered because the committee ignored the context of the information I gave them: that I had no time to stand out in any other way beyond grades because I was busy working, supporting my family.

Familiar stories like this show that not all information is good information or used in good ways. In fact, as powerful as information is, there is nothing about power that is inherently good either. In fact, power can be perilous. The admissions committees at my dream universities had great power to shape my fate through their decisions, and the information they asked me to share didn’t allow me to tell my whole story. And my lack of guidance from school counselors, teachers, and parents meant that I didn’t know what information to give to increase my chances. The committee’s decisions, while quite a powerful form of information, were therefore in no way neutral. In fact, behind their decisions were a particular set of values and notions of merit that shaped the information they requested, the information they provided, and the decision they sent me in thin envelopes in the mail.

A photograph of a person speaking to a large audience
Power is influence, information is influence.

What is power? Within the context of society,  powerpower: The capacity to influence and control others.  is capacity to influence the emotions, behavior, and opportunities of other people. Power and information are intimately related in that information is itself a form of influence. When you listen to someone speak or read someone’s writing, the information they convey can shape our thoughts and ideas. When you take up physical space and give non-verbal cues of a reluctance to move, you are signaling information about what physical threats you might impose. When you share some information on social media, you are helping an idea find its way into other people’s minds. All of these forms of communication are therefore forms of power.

But power is not just communication. Power also resides in our knowledge and beliefs, shaped by information we received long ago. As children, for example, many of us learn ideas of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination, fear, or social hierarchy. These ideas, beliefs, and assumptions form systems of power, in which those high in social hierarchies can influence who has rights, resources, and opportunity. Sociologist Patricia Collins called these forms of power, and their many interactions, the  matrix of dominationmatrix of domination: The system of culture, norms, and laws designed to maintain particular social hierarchies of power. 1 1

Patricia Collins (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routeledge.

, for how these many forms of social power interact across law, culture, disciplines, and interpersonal interactions. Information is at the heart of this matrix, as people with power use information to build and reinforce this matrix, preserving their influence over others’ behavior. Information, therefore, is far from neutral. Like any technology, it sits atop society, expressing particular values, requiring us to examine information for more than its content, but also its creator, their motivations, and their values.

D’Ignazio and Klein, in their book  Data Feminism 2 2

Catherine D'Ignazio, Lauren F. Klein (2020). Data Feminism. MIT Press.

, link the matrix of domination to data and information. In their book, they observe that what is done with data depends on who has power and what they use it for; that changing how power uses data requires challenging not just data itself, but how power is being used; that our tendency to classify, sort, and organize people using data can reinforce the matrix of domination; and that harm from data often comes not from intent, but simply lack of context about its meaning and origins. Data, and thus, information, is rife with peril without careful, mindful, and just use.

A screenshot of the TSA scanner screen showing a body and its anomalies.
Is any body “anomalous”?

Let’s consider some of the many ways that information and its underlying values can be perilous. One seemingly innocuous problem with information is that it can  misrepresent . For example, when I go to an airport in the United States, I often have to be scanned by a TSA body scanner. This scanner creates a three dimensional model of the surface of my body using x-ray backscatter. The TSA agent then selects male or female, and the algorithm inside the scanner compares the model of my body to a machine learned model of “normal” male and female bodies, based on a data set of undisclosed origin. If it finds discrepancies between the model of my body and its model of “normal,” I am flagged as anomalous, and then subjected to a public body search by an agent. For most people, the only time this will happen is if there is something that looks like a gun to the scanner. But many transgender people such as myself, as well as other people whose bodies do not conform to stereotypically gendered shapes such as those with disabilities, are frequently flagged and searched. This discrimination, in which “normal” bodies are protected by security, and “anomalous” bodies are invasively searched and sometimes humiliated, derives from how the TSA scanners and the TSA agents  misrepresent  the actual diversity of human bodies. They misrepresent this diversity because of the matrix of domination that excludes gender non-conforming and disabled people from consideration in design.

Information can also be false or misleading,  misinforming  its recipient. This was perhaps no more apparent during President Trump’s 2016-2020 term, in which he wrote countless tweets that were demonstrably false about many subjects, including COVID-19. For example, on October 5th, 2020, just after being released from the hospital a few days after testing positive for the virus, he tweeted:

I will be leaving the great Walter Reed Medical Center today at 6:30 P.M. Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!

President Trump, October 5th, 2020

Whether or not the President was intentionally giving bad advice, or this was simply fueled by his steroid injection, its impact was clear, as the tweet was shortly followed by the Autumn 2020 wave of infections in the United States, fueled by conspiracy theories framing the virus as a hoax, and pressure on state and local officials to avoid stricter public health rules. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the U.S., likely due partly to the President’s persistent spreading of misleading information about the virus and many years of similar misinformation about vaccines, spread by parents who did not understand or believe the science of immunology.

Information can also  disinform . Unlike misinformation, which is independent of intent, disinformation is information that people know to be false, and spread in order to influence behavior in particular ways. For example, many states in the United States require doctors who are administering abortions to  lie to patients  about the effects of abortion; the intent of these laws is framed as informed consent, but many legislators have admitted that their actual purpose is to disincentivize people from following through on abortions. Similarly,  QAnon conspiracies , have created even larger collective delusions that lead to entirely alternate false realities. Disinformation, then, is a form of power and influence through deception.

Social media platforms manipulate our behavior

Some information may be true, but may be created to  manipulate , by misrepresenting its purpose. For example, in the video above, technologist Jaron Lanier discusses how social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram (also owned by Facebook) are fundamentally about selling ads. Facebook is not presented this way—in fact, it is rather innocuously presented as a way to stay connected with friends and family—but its true purpose is to ensure that when an advertisement is shown in a social media feed that we attend to it and possibly click on it, which makes Facebook money. Similarly, a “like” button is presented as a social signal of support or affirmation, but its primary purpose is to help generate a detailed model of our individual interests, so that ads may be better targeted towards us. Independent of whether you think this is a fair trade, it is fundamentally manipulation, as Facebook misrepresents the motives of its features and services.

A photograph of a person looking at a complex menu at a cafe
Choice overload can complicate decisions.

Information can also  overload 4 4

Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifender, Peter M. Todd (2010). Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta‐Analytic Review of Choice Overload. Journal of Consumer Research.

. In a context where there are too many options—too many search results, too many products, too many tweets, too many emails—it is possible for too much information to lead to people being less happy with their choices or making no choice at all. These effects are not consistent—sometimes information overload occurs and strongly influences decision outcomes, and other times it actually helps. This research suggests that the whether information about choices is good depends on what the information is and what the decision is.

A photograph of people gaming in front of PCs in the dark
Gaming can be both fun and addictive.

Sometimes, information can be  addictive 3 3

Samaha, M., & Hawi, N. S. (2016). Relationships among smartphone addiction, stress, academic performance, and satisfaction with life. Computers in Human Behavior.

. Some of the most obvious examples are things like games and stories, which are often explicitly designed to entice us to play the next level or read the next chapter. When we practice self-regulation, moderating our consumption of information, such media can be a source of  joy, connection, and entertainment . But when left unmoderated, they may pose addiction risks, especially to youth, where there is a strong association between smartphone addiction, stress, and reduced academic performance 3 3

Samaha, M., & Hawi, N. S. (2016). Relationships among smartphone addiction, stress, academic performance, and satisfaction with life. Computers in Human Behavior.

. But games and stories are the most obvious sources of information addiction; less obvious ones are notifications on smartphones, which may also be addictive.

A photograph of people using smartphones in a subway car.
Are these passengers isolated or connected?

Some recent research has even shown that ease of accessing information can lead to  isolation 5 5

Sherry Turkle (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from ourselves. MIT Press.

. Because the internet has essentially infinite information, and connecting with people in superficial ways through social media is so much easier than connecting in deeper ways, there appears to be evidence that youth are less likely to have intimate relationships, less robust interpersonal communication skills, and more isolation. This same pattern can also contribute to bullying, as the ease of superficial communication makes it easier for peers to communicate with and bully victims with minimal visibility of parents, teachers, or even peers. Of course, information addiction in smartphones alone are likely not the sole explanation behind mental health challenges; they may just be one of many factors. (Moreover, for some youth, they may be protective factors, preventing isolation).

A photograph of a television news story showing the Uber car and mangled bicycle.
Information can kill.

Information can also  kill . Consider, for example, the case of the  Uber autonomous driving sensor system . In March of 2018, it was driving down a highway with a human driver monitoring it. Elaine Herzberg, a pedestrian, was crossing the road with her bike at 10 p.m. The driver was not impaired, but also was not monitoring the system. The system noticed an obstacle, but could not classify it; then, it classified it as a vehicle; then as a bicycle. And finally, 1.3 seconds before impact, the system determined that an emergency braking maneuver was required to avoid a collision. However, this mode was disabled during automated driving mode, and the driver was not notified, so the car struck and killed Elaine. This critical bit of information—danger!—was never sent to the driver, and since the driver was not paying attention, someone died. Beyond automation, errors in information can kill in any safety-critical context, including flight, health care, and social safety nets that provide food, shelter, and security.

These, of course, are not the only potential problems with information. The world has an ongoing struggle with the tensions of free speech, censorship, and the many ways we have discussed above that information can do harm. With the ability of the internet to archive much of our past, there are also many open questions about what rights we have to erase information stored on other people’s computers that might tie us to a past life, a past action, or a past name or identity. These and the numerous many other questions, reinforce that information has values, and those values are intrinsically tied to the ways that we exercise control over each other.

The podcasts below all reveal the peril of information in different ways.


  1. Patricia Collins (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routeledge.

  2. Catherine D'Ignazio, Lauren F. Klein (2020). Data Feminism. MIT Press.

  3. Samaha, M., & Hawi, N. S. (2016). Relationships among smartphone addiction, stress, academic performance, and satisfaction with life. Computers in Human Behavior.

  4. Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifender, Peter M. Todd (2010). Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta‐Analytic Review of Choice Overload. Journal of Consumer Research.

  5. Sherry Turkle (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from ourselves. MIT Press.