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Sight Magazine – Essay: Three reasons misinformation is so prevalent and what we can do about it

Donald Trump called all critical media coverage “fake news” and his reluctance to concede the 2020 presidential election ultimately led to the January 6, 2021 riot at the United States Capitol.

For years, radio host Alex Jones has denounced the parents of children massacred in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Connecticut as “crisis actors.” On August 5, 2022, he was sentenced by a jury to pay more than $49 million in damages to two families for defamation.

PHOTO: Arkadiusz Wargula/iStockphoto.

These are by no means isolated efforts to flood media around the world with dishonest information or malicious content. Governments, organizations and individuals spread misinformation for profit or to gain strategic advantage.

But why so much misinformation? And what can we do to protect ourselves?

“This information crisis is usually framed in terms of spreading false information intentionally (disinformation) or unintentionally (misinformation). However, this approach misses important forms of propaganda, including techniques honed during the Cold War. “

Three deep reasons
Three schools of thought have emerged to answer this question. The first suggests that misinformation is so prevalent because distrust of traditional sources of authorityincluding the media, continues to increase. When people believe that the mainstream media fails to hold industries and governments accountable, they may be more likely to accept information that challenges conventional beliefs.

Second, social media platforms’ focus on engagement often leads them to promote shocking allegations that arouse outrage, whether those claims are true or not. Indeed, studies show false information about social media broadcasts further, faster and deeper than real information, because it is more new and surprising.

Finally, the role of hostile and deliberate disinformation tactics cannot be overlooked. Facebook believes that during the 2016 US election, malicious content from Russia Internet research agency aimed at creating a divide among the American voting public reached 126 million people in the United States and around the world.

The many shades of misinformation
This information crisis is usually formulated in terms of spreading false information intentionally (misinformation) or unintentionally (misinformation). However, this approach misses important forms of propaganda, including techniques honed during the Cold War.

More Russian influence efforts on Twitter did not involve communicating “manifestly false” content. Instead, subtle and subversive examples of propaganda were common and relentless, including calling for the removal of U.S. officials, buying divisive ads, and coordinating real-life protests.

Unfortunately, even misinformation unintentionally spread can have tragic consequences. In 2020, following Donald Trump’s false claims that hydroxychloroquine showed “very encouraging results” against COVID-19 quickly spread on social media, several people in Nigeria have died of drug overdoses.



Responses to propaganda and misinformation
So how have various entities dealt with both misinformation and disinformation?

The Jones case and jury verdict is an example of how corporations can counter misinformation. Being taken to court and forced by a jury of your peers to pay out $49 million in damages would make most people check what they say before they say it.

Governments and companies have also taken significant steps to mitigate misinformation. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the EU has stopped broadcasting Russia Todaythe famous Russian state-controlled television network, and it is no longer available in Europe or Africa.

The EUvsDisinfo The project has countered Russian propaganda and tackled the Russian Federation’s “ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the European Union, its member states and countries in the shared neighborhood” since 2015. In 2022, Google followed suit. not by throwing Russia-Ukraine ConflictMisinfo Dashboardwhich lists dubious claims related to the invasion and verifies their veracity.

Wikipedia as anti-propaganda?
Ordinary citizens also have several ways to counter misinformation. Information literacy is generally seen as an individual responsibility, but Swedish researchers Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin emphasize that “a shared sense of truth requires societal trust, especially institutional trust, at least as an anticipated ideal”.

How can we recreate a common sense of truth? Wikipedia – the freely accessible online encyclopedia where knowledge is produced collectively – is a good place to start.

Wikipedia has community-enforced policies on neutrality and verifiability. Anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, but countless administrators, users, and automated typesetting “bots” make sure those edits are as correct as possible. Changes and disputes on the content of articles are archived on the site and visible to all: the editorial process is transparent. With the possible exception of obscure topics where very few editors are involved, misinformation is quickly weeded out.


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Education is the key
As consumers of information, we can take some important steps to protect ourselves from misinformation, including seeking and reading a wide variety of sources and not sharing questionable content. Schools are doing their part to spread this message.

Notable initiatives in Australia include Camberwell Grammar School in Canterbury, Victoria, where teachers have drawn on resources produced by ABC Education teach their students how to identify credible sources of information. And a pilot program from the University of Canberra using technology from Stanford University “side reading” The principle is being tested this year in three ACT primary and secondary schools. The program asks participants to open another tab and consult Wikipedia if they come across any unknown or dubious claims. If the claim is not verifiable, move on.

This education in information must be supplemented by an awareness of democratic norms and values. And it should also incorporate a better understanding of the importance of privacy: the more we share about ourselves, the more likely we are to be targeted by disinformation campaigns.

While misinformation may continue and even thrive in some corners, our best lines of defense ensure that we read information from multiple, credible sources; use fact-checking services; and are more demanding about what we read and share.

To put it simply, don’t feed trolls – or the platforms where they thrive.The conversation

Matthew O’Neill is Associate Professor of Communication at the News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra and Michael Jensen is Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra, University of Canberra. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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