By Alan C. Miller
The growing contagion of online misinformation should serve as a national wake-up call: We need a new ethos of personal responsibility about the news and other information that we trust — and that we share.
Each of us needs to be inoculated against the viruses being spread in this pandemic and become part of the solution, instead of mindlessly aggravating the problem. The stakes are nothing less than the health of our democracy and the future of the country’s civic life.
It isn’t simply a clever turn of phrase when we talk about content going viral: Just as the measles virus is spreading rapidly both across the U.S. and around the world, with reported cases up 300% from this time last year, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, rumors and outright falsehoods proliferate on social media platforms, multiplying with each like, share and retweet.
In fact, those platforms are, in part, responsible for the resurgence of measles — a disease that, while potentially deadly, is highly preventable, thanks to a safe and effective vaccine. (It was even declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.) In recent years, though, the “anti-vaxxer” movement has used social media to spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines, and millions of people have made health care decisions for their children based on the conspiracy theories and debunked pseudo-science promoted in these posts.
This is one especially unfortunate example of the internet as an echo chamber: We are increasingly inclined to accept as credible the news and social media posts that align with our beliefs and to dismiss content that contradicts our beliefs as biased, or even “fake.” This tendency to see the news through such prisms makes us more vulnerable to content that plays to our biases, exploits our vulnerabilities and further widens our divisions.
And you don’t have to look far to see evidence of the real threat to our nation: The massive Russian disinformation campaign before and during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign sought to sow discord, influence the outcome of the election and undermine faith in democracy itself. Russia is hardly the only entity deploying such tactics.
Online, there is no barrier to entry to those who want to mislead, misinform or exploit, whether to promote an ideology, make money, cause mischief, or worse. It may not come as a surprise that false news spreads much faster and farther — and penetrates more deeply — than real news, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There is no disputing the profound challenge that this complex information landscape presents. A Pew Research Center study found that nearly nine in 10 Americans say that the prevalence of “fake news” has left them confused about even basic facts. Nearly two-thirds of people worldwide agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumors or falsehoods, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. And a survey commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation revealed that more than two-thirds of college students say that the deluge of information is overwhelming, and more than a third say that the threat of “fake news” makes them doubt the credibility of any news.
We need a change in consciousness to counteract this fog of confusion and mistrust.
First, we must understand — and take responsibility for — our roles in the 21st-century information ecosystem. Misinformation can’t spread virally unless we infect others with it. We need to slow down before we hit “share” or “retweet” or “like,” and ask ourselves if doing so will mislead, misinform or do harm.
Next, we need to immunize ourselves against viral misinformation. Start by reading past the headline or subject line. Look at the byline or creator of the information and check the publication date. As you read, notice whether credible sources or documents are cited and if enough information is presented to allow you to confidently make up your own mind. Explore whether the information is being widely reported or coming from only a single source. Ask yourself if the piece intends to inform in a dispassionate way or rather play to emotions and seek to persuade, sell, incite or exploit.
Then we must look within. Ask yourself: What bias am I bringing to it? Am I seeking information or confirmation? Finally: Is this something that I can responsibly trust, share and act on? Stand up for facts online and in your community and encourage others to join you.
In more than a decade of work at the News Literacy Project, I’ve seen the transformative power of this kind of critical thinking, fostered by our Checkology® virtual classroom, with middle school and high school students. Learning how to know what to believe in the digital age is empowering. Students who previously got their news and other information from their friends on social media — and believed and shared it all — became more discerning and engaged consumers of credible news. Others who cynically believed that everything is driven by an agenda discovered that all news is not created equal. Some now engage classmates, friends and family members in constructive discussions about where they get their information and how they assess its truthfulness.
We need to transform this mentality into a movement. We’ve seen a sea change in public attitudes around such behaviors as drunken driving, smoking and littering. It’s high time we make consuming and sharing misinformation a socially unacceptable behavior.
Together, we can give facts a fighting chance. The future of our country just might depend on it.
(Alan C. Miller is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, a national educational nonprofit. He is a former reporter with the Los Angeles Times.)