I know you don’t want to hear this. I’m going to say it anyway.
- The only way to slow the spread of disinformation is with information.
- We must counter false narratives everywhere they are found online.
- It’s a fight we are losing.
- We still need to do it anyway.
I know, I know, it’s NOT what you want to be doing.
That’s exactly why disinformation campaigns are so insidiously effective. They are meant and designed to drive out the very voices that could be most effective at countering them. If we want to be savvy stewards in a modern age, we must take the fight where it is playing out, and to great success: on social media.
Social Media sucks
The World Economic Forum has referred to the global community coming online as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and cites the rise of misinformation as one of the greatest threats to society as a whole and an urgent matter of human rights. (This is a big freaking pronouncement, as these are the stodgiest bunch of capitalists the world has to offer– not prone to hyperbole).
False information tends to spread like wildfire on social media, and there are virtually no formal mechanisms to halt it. In fact, the largest purveyor or false information, Facebook, is doubling down with its decision to allow bald faced lies in political ads. In a recent algorithm bias report, it appears that “women, trans, nonbinary people, BIPOCs, plus-sized, sex workers – are being silenced, by conscious or unconscious bias built into the framework of our digital world.”
Look, it makes sense that many of us do not want to give our time and energy to a platform that does its damnedest to work against our interests. But perhaps that’s exactly why we should. We can’t allow for the silencing of voices within the medium most likely to shape the larger conversations. Perhaps there are reasons disinformation pushers don’t want us there.
I can already see all of your doubts and excuses creeping up. Believe me, writing this is as much for me as it is for you. Follow along as we defeat the bogeymen together.
I am overwhelmed. Can I not?
With an ocean of misinformation, how could we ever hope to effectively counter it? Yup, this is an information war—it’s fast and effective, and there are coordinated actors perpetuating it. However, like every resistance effort, the bulk of effective work is in small acts of defiance committed by average individuals: throwing sand in the gears.
Online activism countering disinformation isn’t a replacement for things like engaging public officials, protesting, and organizing, but it is something we can add to our repertoire and we really should. It’s relatively easy, accessible, and can be done in tiny chunks of time anywhere. More and more of us should become grains of sand in the information machine, one comment at a time, until we grind it to a halt (or at least slow the speed).
Every little bit really does help.
Does it really matter?
There is a common trope that ‘no one ever changes their mind on social media,’ so why bother? (I blame us Gen Xers, I swear, the Boomers took the resources, and we came along and scooped up all the hope. Apathy is an impulse we should fight against every damn day—yeah, I’m fun at parties).
It stands to reason that if bad actors are devoting so much time and resources into corroding democratic institution through disinformation online, it’s effective. Countering disinformation is harder, and our resources are diffuse, but it’s literally all we have on that front, and opting out entirely seems like a scary prospect.
Besides, apathy is uncalled for: 14% of Americans admit that they have changed their mind because of something they saw on social media—and that’s just those who recognize and acknowedge it. That number leaps to 23% of individuals 18-29 and to 29% of 18-29-year-old men. This is a group worth ensuring are well informed, and are often exactly who is a prime target for radicalization.
Many of the worst problems with the spreading of disinformation are coming from those newly online—young people and elders in particular. These also represent two enormously critical voting groups, as elections can swing on whether or not young people show up, and elders are a reliable voting block whose opinions carry outsized weight in the voting booth.
Despite my (and your) desire to dismiss our power, our actions really do matter.
I really really hate it. Do I have to?
As I’ve been having this conversation with my nearest and dearest, a common pattern emerged ‘you’re probably right, but *sigh* I really don’t want to. It’s awful.’ This is something I don’t have much of a counter to, because it IS awful.
It is not fun to see lies breed, your moral convictions mocked, and your identity attacked. Seeing people you grew up thinking were ‘good people’ justifying caging babies, for example, means you can never go back to seeing them as ‘good’ again. The vast majority of people I know, most of whom are actively engaged in other forms of activism, have generally opted out of online activism because it is soul crushing, lonely, and can definitely negatively affect one’s mental health. None of that should be taken lightly, it’s real, and heightened for those who are more frequently attacked on identity lines.
But like many things that are good for us but suck (hello, Kale), we have to push ourselves to do the uncomfortable drudgery, but in ways that protect our core and doesn’t cause us undue harm.
We can’t expect those most impacted by dehumanizing attacks to take on the brunt of the work. Disinformation is so often presented as thought experiments, and sometimes our own detachment is the best place to counter from.
Personal experience can also be a great counter, but we deserve to preserve our own humanity first particularly around non-culturally dominant traits. The more privilege you possess, the more capital you can afford to spend on online activism.
Looking at you, people who look like me.
Do it anyway
To summarize, your (and my) feelings and excuses are valid. But they’re not the only things that are valid. Disinformation is huge, diffuse, and it doesn’t really care about our feelings and excuses. In fact, those who use disinformation count on our weaknesses. They count on us not wanting to or being willing to care.
So choosing to care and not throw your hands in the air and give up is in itself an act of defiance and revolution against disinformation. That’s the hardest part! The rest, as they say, is practice. Choosing to spend a certain amount of time every day (it doesn’t even have to be huge!) correcting disinformation is a habit, just like brushing your teeth.
Democracy depends on fighting disinformation. Being a good citizen means having skin in the game, and getting over our inner hurdles because truth matters. We can’t be healthy without it.