Social Media Self-Defense 101

Disinformation campaigns generally rely on your lack of time, knowledge, or interest to do some basic checks before you comment, share, or retweet. Many also rely on your initial outrage, fear, or excitement to ensure that you help spread disinformation. This article is part of my work for the Mercator Working Group on Mapping Disinformation. The aim is to hopefully provide you with some help in spotting disinformation, where it’s targeting you, and how to better defend yourself against it.


It’s all about attitude

Most messaging has a persuasive goal. And by ‘messaging’ I don’t mean instant messaging, such as what you send and receive via WhatsApp or Snapchat, but the types of messages crafted and sent by organizations to draw your attention to something. Sometimes the persuasive nature is obvious, such as ads that try to persuade you to buy something or sensational news stories that want you to share them, and sometimes its nature seems neutral, such as patient information leaflets trying to persuade you to use medication as directed. How we interact with these messages — clicking or not clicking an ad, sharing a news story or not, ignoring or following the directions in the patient information leaflet — depends on our attitude towards that message. In this post, I will discuss how we as people generally form attitudes, how that process is used against us when it comes to disinformation on social media, and what we can do to keep ourselves from spreading it.

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

(Don’t care about how we form attitudes? No time to read through some examples? Go straight to the conclusion! Motivated to learn more about how we process information and form attitudes? Time to read more about how we make decisions? The Wikipedia-pages on the Elaboration Likelihood Model and Thinking Fast and Slow are a good place to start.)


I suggest you change your attitude

When we’re confronted with (new) information, we tend to deal with that information in one of three ways:

1. We go with our gut, as in we process the information based on how we feel about it. This is a quick way of forming an attitude and it requires little effort. Like hearing a good song for the first time. We don’t think to ourselves: “Ah, yes. Let me carefully consider the interplay between vocals and rhythm to determine…” No. You start bobbing your head or tapping your foot and you go: “Damn. That’s a good track.” We basically form our attitude in a matter of seconds by instinctively referencing a collection of previous experiences and figuring out how this new song fits into that collection. It doesn’t necessarily produce very reliable or lasting attitudes (“Oh, it’s the new Ed Sheeran-track? I don’t really like Ed Sheeran…”), so if we don’t trust our initial emotional judgment, we tend to fall back on one (or both) of the following.

2. We use a mental shortcut such as a rule of thumb. Rules of thumb allow us to simplify what we’re dealing with: “This movie scored 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. 81% is a pretty high score, Rotten Tomatoes is usually reliable, so this movie is worth watching”. In many cases, rules of thumb produce pretty reliable results, they’re almost as fast as using your gut, and we feel like we’ve thought about it, so the attitude is stronger. The downside? We didn’t actually really think about it, we just feel like we did. So, we may have formed an attitude that is stronger than it deserves to be.

3. We look at the facts critically to the best of our ability. We conduct research, consider the pros and cons of the issue at hand, and draw a conclusion based on the available information. This strategy usually produces both correct and strong attitudes, because you’ve really taken the time to understand what you’re dealing with. The downside is that finding and evaluating all the information you need to make a good decision takes time and effort.

We tend to only resort to critical thinking when we feel that forming a correct attitude really matters. If you’re buying a house, a car, choosing your school or looking for a new job, you’re motivated to get to the bottom of things and if possible, you’ll take your time to do so. Forming the attitude “This house is a good investment” when it actually isn’t and you end up buying it, means you’ll have to deal with that mistake for a long time. As such, it makes sense to put in the time and effort now to reach a correct attitude rather than forming an incorrect one and having to clean up your mistake down the line.

How we deal with information that is trying to influence our attitudes — trusting your feelings, using a shortcut, or critical thinking — depends on two things:

1. How motivated we are to deal with the information, i.e.: Is it important that you form a correct attitude?

2. How able we are to deal with the information, i.e.: Is this a complex matter or not? Do you have the time to deal with it?

So, what does this have to do with spreading disinformation?

Well, disinformation spreads because we’re not motivated and/or able to process a message critically. That also makes sense: we’re confronted with hundreds maybe even thousands of messages and notifications per day. Even if we were motivated to process all of them critically, who has time for that? So, naturally, we develop a filter to sort through all of the messaging: gut, gut, nothing, gut, shortcut, nothing, critical, gut, and so on. We do this all day long — so no wonder that some disinformation slips through — and that’s perfectly normal human behavior.

Now, the social media platforms we use are designed to take advantage of this perfectly normal human behavior: our engagement and our attention need to be sold to advertisers in order for the social media platform to be profitable, so attention and engagement are equated to clicks. The more clicks (likes, comments, shares, etc.) we generate, the more desirable the ad space becomes, the more profit can be earned. As such, fleeting interaction is preferable to well-considered interaction (after all: clicking on the actual content and consuming it in a meaningful way takes us away from the social media platform where we could be generating clicks) and that’s where the problems with disinformation start.

In order to game the engagement-system that the social platforms designed to take advantage of our basic, normal human behavior, disinformation campaigns try to appeal to our gut reactions. They generate a headline, image, or subheader that encourages us to Like / Love / Happy / Wow / Sad / Angry the story without even clicking the article, nevermind doing any further research. Maybe we leave a comment because the headline outraged us, maybe we share it, so our friends can be outraged with us (and confirm — through likes, comments and reshares — that we were right to be outraged in the first place).

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Disinformation campaigns are banking on the fact that we’re not motivated and/or don’t have the time to critically evaluate every message that we’re confronted with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the only effective way of rooting out disinformation messaging is to evaluate ALL messaging critically — not just the possibly disinformational messaging — and neither the engagement-system nor we as people are optimized for that.

When in doubt, do without

The articles, posts, and infographics telling us to “Always check your sources before you share” are effective in the short term while we’re still motivated to follow their advice. But they lose their effectiveness in the long term because their solution wants us to invest more time and effort than we’re prepared to invest. So, if we cannot process every message critically, how can we be mindful of a system that was specifically designed to encourage us to not be mindful? Well, it may sound odd but I suggest we do nothing at all: Don’t care enough to check the sources? Don’t share. Don’t have time to read the article? Don’t Like. Not prepared to discuss in a meaningful way? Don’t comment.
It might not give us the same immediate satisfaction as hitting that Like-button, but it will help curb the spread of disinformation. In other words: when in doubt, do without.