Why 10,000 Years of Disinformation Will Not Suddenly Go Away

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Disinformation, misinformation and fake news surround us these days. They push in from all sides, begging for our attention and appealing to our rawest emotions. For most of us, it has become difficult to sort out truth from deception. The very concept of objective ‘truth’ is questioned.

Even grammarians declared their frustration by naming “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year. While we hear a lot about fake news, there’s nothing new about it.

A Long History of Deception

As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” That’s the key: deception has historically been, and is still today, geared toward confusing people and driving them apart to cause even greater confusion. Amid that confusion, the “enemy” moves in to exploit the situation.

These enemies may choose to take advantage through the dissemination of what has come to be called “fake news” for a variety of reasons. Reasons can range from the simple and seemingly innocuous (to convince someone to buy a product), to the more troubling and societally impactful (to convince someone to elect a candidate for office), to the systemically dangerous (to gather people in revolt), to even corporate extortion via ransomware or reputational damage.

These desired outcomes – singular or in combination – have been behind the spread of misinformation for millennia. These motives still fuel today’s disinformation campaigns, but here’s the disturbing truth: social media and other technology-based advancements now enable disinformation campaigns to spread farther, faster, and with more devastating effect than at any time in history.

Perhaps people are easily misled because misleading is easy and ‘facts’ can be polarizing depending on the narrative they are used to support.

“Falsehood flies and the Truth comes limping after it.” – Jonathan Swift, 1710

Historically, before the advent of communication tools like the printing press, the telephone, email, and the internet, mistruths spread relatively slowly. Today misinformation can be spread in the blink of an eye (or the tap of a keystroke). The speed of transfer serves to ramp up the difficulties of correcting that disinformation. It’s like a virus—something we can all readily identify with and something that has been prone to its own misinformation and manipulations.

The virus becomes more powerful—more viral—when it’s fueled by emotion-laden falsehoods that serve to further polarize populations. Fake news about politics spreads especially quickly because these types of stories typically stoke emotional fires. People ‘like’ and ‘share’ these stories because they help to bolster their personal cognitive biases.

The spread of these falsehoods is, of course, rapidly fueled via technology and platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both having faced criticism on many fronts, most notably since the 2016 elections. Is technology to blame for the spread?

People, Not Technology, Represent the Biggest Problem

Writing for Science Magazine, Katie Langin, covers a Twitter study involving “a data set of 126,000 news items that were shared 4.5 million times by three million people.” Initially thinking that bots were to blame for the rapid spread, they drilled down deeper into the data, ultimately learning that people were the real problem.

Unfortunately, people are far more difficult to influence, manage, correct, or redirect than bits and bytes. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

A Focus on Ongoing Education

How can we educate people and raise their awareness of the damage disinformation, misinformation, and fake news can cause?

  • By teaching them how to identify misinformation and disinformation online
  • By alerting them to the tricks used to launch phishing scams 
  • By encouraging them to check the source of information esp. outlandish claims and baseless conspiracies
  • By helping them identify and be alert to their own cognitive biases

Deception is especially dangerous as more people are working from home in situations that are both stressful and prone to distraction, making them more vulnerable than ever to deception and cyber-attack. 

We can’t hope to eliminate fake news any time soon, but we can educate ourselves and others to help minimize the potential impact, and real damage, that falling prey to fake news can cause. 

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