Can our cities protect us from online disinformation campaigns? I believe they can, if we promote patterns of healthy social engagement between friends, relatives, and strangers in our public spaces.
In my lifetime, American news consumption habits have shifted tremendously. People once got almost all of their news from mainstream sources such as network television and newspapers. Regardless of the sort of community you lived in, everybody read or heard basically the same information. While most of these media outlets remain, countless new outlets of information and opinion have sprouted online.
Unless you’ve been living in a parallel universe, you’ve heard about attempts by Russia to use deliberately false information to undermine democracies in Europe and the US. Invariably this disinformation is spread via the internet through an unwieldy network of social media, opinion websites, and state-controlled channels. While some of these efforts target computer systems directly, many use computer networks to affect human behavior. This is the vital link where city design plays a role.
One of the first books I read as an aspiring planner was Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. In it he examines growing disconnection between individuals and the disintegration of social institutions and social capital.
While Putnam identifies a long list of potential causes for the deterioration of social institutions, one stands out to me is the changing geometry of North American neighborhoods. The conventional patterns of suburban development that emerged around the 1960s and are persistent to this day erode social capital between residents. These developments rarely include any non-residential components where neighbors may be exposed to each other informally. These developments often are built at consistently low density with a proliferation of dead ends (aka cul-de-sacs); these geometric parameters further reduce the chances of neighbors developing interpersonal connections.
While these neighborhoods have severely limited (or severed) the capacity for people to build social capital, the bandwidth of information entering the home via the internet has increased exponentially. Within the span of about two decades, broadband internet and smart phones proliferated to practically every corner of the developed world.
I believe that conventional suburban development puts people at risk for future digital disinformation campaigns. People living in conventional subdivisions have very few chances to encounter people outside their household. This isolation allows other forms of media to fill the deficit in human communication. Sometimes this can lead to beneficial results: people find ways to get engaged in charitable causes thru the internet that they wouldn’t have found otherwise. Conversely, this isolation also removes one important buffer for disinformation campaigns: human interaction.
The chances of a spontaneous and meaningful encounter increase in neighborhoods that include some commercial uses (grocery store, post office, bbq joint, &c.), especially when these serve as clear community nodes within walking distance from homes. Neighborhoods that are built around a connected pattern of streets encourage unplanned meetings between neighbors. Neighborhoods that have a mix of housing types and densities attract people of various ages, incomes, and family types. All of these factors lead to neighborhoods where no one is isolated unless he or she truly chooses to be.
When we reduce social isolation, we create a buffer for disinformation campaigns. While it’s relatively easy for targeted disinformation to reach an individual or a small group of people who are be predisposed to believing it, it is effectively impossible to society at-large when people are regularly engaged in these mild forms of social interaction. I believe that we can hard-wire our defense against disinformation through the design of our communities. Considering the scale of the threat that internet-spread disinformation poses to democratic institutions, this challenge is more pressing than ever.