The Casualty of Context: When Information Loses its Roots

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The Casualty of Context: When Information Loses its Roots

In today’s digital era, where information zips around the globe at the speed of light, the casualty of context is evident. The rise of social media and the shift towards rapid, bite-sized consumption of news and information has had an unintended consequence, context. The bedrock upon which understanding is built, often gets left behind, leading to misinterpretations, misinformation, and at times, a distorted view of reality. Thus, information loses its roots. 


Social media platforms are primarily designed for succinct communication. While this efficiency of language has its benefits — think of the snappy one-liners that capture attention or the memes that summarize complex ideas with a dash of humour — it’s a double-edged sword. When we compress information, we might omit essential elements that provide context, setting the stage for misunderstanding. Coincidently, it is this vulnerability of context that some researchers attribute to mental health and wellbeing risks of social media (although there are many positives too).

A picture says a thousand words.

Consider an image shared on a platform like Twitter or Instagram. Without context, a picture of a protesting crowd could be a call for democracy, a rally against climate change, a celebration, or even an outcry over a sporting event. A single tweet or caption seldom provides enough context to understand the depth, nuances, or implications of the situation. The result? Users might jump to conclusions, the narrative becomes skewed, and the real story might be lost or misconstrued.

Loss of context: Stacks of bricks on the street during the Hong Kong protests 2019 Source: The Guardian, 2019
Loss of context: Stacks of bricks on the street during the Hong Kong protests 2019 Source: The Guardian, 2019

the image above is a classic example of this where smalls stacks of bricks which appeared all over social media in late 2020 as evidence that the government where inciting violence during the protests following the horrific George Floyd murder in 2020. While government involvement or not is outside the scope of this post (you can read more about that here), the picture is actually from the Hong Kong protest during 2019 where bricks where stacked resembling ‘mini-Stonehenge’s’ to impede vehicle movement.

Some omissions of context are deliberate and calculated attempts to shape a narrative to suit the wider view of the author. However, not all posts, images and articles are such attempts. This casualty of context however, allows the viewer to conjure whichever narrative they see fit, guided of course by the author.

Another, perhaps lighter example of this are the memes surrounding this college professor who would arrive at work dressed as a Smurf. While comical, it omits the fact that this picture is taken on Halloween, where the college professor would teach in costume to celebrate the holidays for those unfortunate enough to have class. 

Papa Smurf teaching college students

Such decontextualized fragments of information serve as mental shortcuts, or heuristics. While heuristics are essential in helping us navigate the vast amount of information we encounter daily, they can also be dangerously misleading. These shortcuts can foster biases, reinforce stereotypes, or lead to hasty and ill-informed judgments.

Going beyond images: how data can support whatever you want it to.

This casualty of context is even more pronounced in the world of data and analytics. In an age where data is the new oil, its correct interpretation is paramount. However, without context, data can tell a myriad of stories — not all of them accurate.

Consider unemployment rates as a simple example. A raw number indicating a 5% unemployment rate might sound positive for a country with historically high unemployment. However, if the previous month’s rate was 3%, this indicates a significant increase, painting a different picture entirely. Context, in this case, provides a timeline, a comparison point, and a deeper understanding. Similarly, if a business notes a 10% increase in sales for a particular quarter, it sounds promising. But what if that same quarter last year saw a 30% increase? Relative to previous performance, the current growth might be less impressive. Again, context is crucial.

For analysts, statisticians, and data scientists, the challenge is to ensure that the stories they weave from data are both accurate and contextual. A single data point or a standalone statistic rarely tells the whole story. For data to be meaningful, it needs a narrative rooted in context. It requires comparison points, historical backgrounds, and sometimes even cultural or geographical explanations.

Unfortunately, the omission of context is not always innocent. In some cases, data is deliberately decontextualized to drive a particular narrative or agenda. The recent proliferation of ‘fake news’ or misinformation campaigns is a testament to this. Here, context is not just a casualty but is assassinated for a purpose.

Safeguarding context: what can we do

So, how can we safeguard against the casualty of context, avoiding the wider loss of context in the information age?


  • Critical Consumption: As consumers of information, we must cultivate a habit of critical thinking. It’s essential to question, probe, and seek out more extensive sources of information before drawing conclusions.
  • Encourage Comprehensive Reporting: Content creators, journalists, and social media influencers have a role to play. It’s crucial to provide as much context as possible, even in a condensed format. Hyperlinks, references, or even footnotes can provide additional layers of information for those interested.
  • Holistic Data Analysis: For those in the world of data, it’s essential to present findings that provide a complete picture. Visual aids like graphs, which can show trends over time, or comparative statistics can help ensure that data is seen in its broader context.
  • Media Literacy: Educating younger generations on the importance of media literacy can also arm them against decontextualized information. By teaching them to discern and seek context, we can prepare them for a world inundated with fragmented information.

In conclusion, while the information age has brought about unparalleled access to knowledge, it’s essential to remember that knowledge devoid of context can be misleading, if not dangerous. As we continue to navigate this digital era, reclaiming and emphasizing context is not just a necessity but a responsibility for all.


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Tony Robinson

Currently studying for a PhD in computer science and informatics, I am an inquisitive electrical and electronic engineer with a special interest in bioinformatics and genomic data analysis - particularly hardware acceleration of genomic data analysis on high-performance computing platforms such as FPGA, Cloud, HPC cluster, GPU.

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