Misinformation has been a ‘thing’ for a long time—even George Washington was a target of false information in the 1700s, wherein letters were forged saying he “privately sympathized with the British monarch.” To clear his name, Washington issued a fact-check to be sent to newspapers.
During the Civil War era, there were conspiracy theories and lies “born of white supremacy [with] the desire to justify and maintain slavery.”
Way before that, even, Ancient Greeks sought out ways to fight disinformation with “clever rhetorical tricks” which analysts believe “were necessary for a democracy to function.”
History has proven that misinformation is not a technological problem—although technology does make the spread of misinformation much more fast and vast. The deep rooted problem to misinformation, then, is actually people— because at the core, people are the spreaders of misinformation.
As Clare Wardle says, “it’s the sharing that is so harmful.”
If there was no retweeting, forwarding, reposting of misinformation, it would be sitting in the vacant corners of the internet, decaying as it collects dust.
Instead, misinformation is thriving and living its best life— it is whispering lies in the ears of—not just average citizens—but political and governmental officials as well.
Misinformation will always be an issue regardless of region or demographic because there are a plethora of reasons why people share false information.
For one, misinformation appeals to our emotions.
People might accidentally spread misinformation because they find it helpful—perhaps misinformation is shared because it eases their fears or answers a problem they couldn’t otherwise find a solution for.
(This can be the case for miracle medical solutions like ‘Magic Dirt’.)
People also share misinformation because it is inline with their own confirmation biases.
In 2019, Neiman Lab conducted a study and found “when people encounter something that affirms their views, they more readily share that information among their communities online.”
Individuals might also be prone to spreading misinformation due to the ‘interesting-if-true’ nature of it.
The media landscape is a free for all—anyone can make content and hit send. This isn’t a bad thing though— it’s actually great to have many people across the world create and share content.
(I’ve seen some of the most amazing artwork on Twitter and Instagram that I definitely wouldn’t have ever seen if we weren’t able to create content freely.)
So, how do we tackle misinformation without hurting the beautiful parts of the internet?
Well, for one thing, eliminating misinformation entirely might as well be equivalent to counting to infinity— it’s not possible or logical to think about eliminating all forms of misinformation from the internet.
One reason being, there are many nuances of misinformation.
Is it an opinion that is parading as fact? Is it humor or satire?
There’s also the issue of acronyms and slang which have been created by white supremisist hate groups to avoid being detected by AI systems. Which only proves how nuances in language can change both AI and human moderators’ perception of information.
Disinformation campaigns will also continue to exist as long as there is financial and political motivation to do so. Money and politics will never go away—as they’re embedded in the very institutional and governmental systems of our world.
Even now, Russia is using disinformation campaigns to push certain fallacies about the Ukrainian government for geopolitical gain.
The underlying goal should be to teach media literacy—both in schools and through social media. (Like with TikTok teaming up with NAMLE.)
Studies show teaching media literacy increases peoples’ “discernment between mainstream and false news.”
This is what we want!
The secondary goals should be implemented at the hands of social media platforms—who should willingly partner with fact-checking organizations, computer scientists, misinformation researchers and human rights experts to advance AI technology and rectify racial biases which are embedded within those systems to build successful and appropriate measures for combating misinformation.
(Check out my post about the Misinformation Avengers, here.)
Combatting misinformation is less about eliminating every piece of false information and more about improving the systems that are currently in place and laying the foundation of media literacy so people of all ages can have the agency to discern false information for themselves.