The (Mis)Information Age
The internet has long been a place for massive amounts of information. A great encyclopedia for information on everything that humans have been able to learn. A place where we can keep our shared consciousness outside of written words on physical pages or verbal stories shared between people.
And yet, despite all of the valid information that remains available for consumption on the internet, there exists a massive pile of misinformation and disinformation. We’ll talk about misinformation first.
Misinformation is factually false information. It’s knowledge that is developed and shared which doesn’t exist exclusively in the realm of truth. Misinformation has spread quickly and frequently in the digital age and can often be very harmful. Homebrew remedies to the novel coronavirus when it first emerged are perfect examples of misinformation that spread via a population of people desperate to find an early escape to a pandemic that was, at the time, very much unknown.
Disinformation is misinformation’s more sinister sibling. It is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead its consumers. It can have many of the same negative effects as misinformation in spreading lies, but this time with the background that it has been motivated by an individual or entity who likely has something to gain from the successful spread of the disinformation. Propaganda is most commonly associated with this type of sinister spread of information as states will use the spread of falsehoods to remain in power.
A more recent example of the spread of disinformation has been the assertion that there was widespread voter fraud in the United States during the 2020 presidential election. Proven again and again with evidence to back it up, the fair election that occurred in 2020 was rebutted until Donald Trump left office on January 22nd. Although many mainstream politicians that willfully helped spread these false claims have since moved on, a considerable subset of the population still believes this disinformation is true. This clear spread of false information for the profit of the ultimate spreader, Trump himself, led to an attack of the Capitol by domestic terrorists in pursuit of achieving what many of them thought was righteous vengeance in what they believed was a stolen election. The spread of disinformation, despite the fact that Joe Biden was the clear and fair winner, came to a head that day at the Capitol, all stemming from intentional lies told by the president of the United States.
The immediacy of the internet poses a problem for sites working to control the information that’s displayed throughout their platform. Although tech companies have long been scrutinized for their efforts to adequately patrol their platforms for misleading information, with most sites heavily relying on the American ideal of free speech, throughout the past year considerable steps have been made to improve the way large social media companies are policed for false information. The specific danger of misinformation and disinformation on these sites is not the content of words on a screen, but rather the implications of how those words could potentially incite nefarious actions by individuals and groups who believe the words to be true or could otherwise be inspired by false statements. Steps taken to flag false information for its inaccuracies have been a step in the right direction, but there’s clearly an advanced overhaul of social media and other internet-based organizations that is imminent in a time of such advanced misinformation.
The presence of a scary disease and the isolation that has been forced upon people around the world seems to have further pushed people to their extremes, making division even stronger than before. A trend many had noticed before the pandemic may have been exacerbated and accelerated by the worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 and the particularly heavy toll it’s taken on the United States in a time of such disarray.
Misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena. Disinformation has been paraded around by governments in the form of propaganda for years, and misinformation has spread through communities for just as long. The key difference in the modern age is the rapid acceleration of these two dangerous types of falsehoods to a global audience, prompting rash action by bad actors who want to take advantage of the chaos, or who simply believe the lies that they’ve been told. The terrible irony of it all is that the internet was meant to be a place where the collective consciousness of humankind could be stored. There’s an unending stream of enriching factual information that’s added to the internet every day, with the unfortunate side effect being that it’s often difficult to discern, especially to the layperson, what’s fact and what isn’t.