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The fight for truth: How misinformation and disinformation can lead to ‘chaos, civil war’

Fake news and its impact on society
Media literacy graphic.
Posted at 6:06 AM, Jan 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-25 20:14:19-05

TAMPA, Fla. — If anyone still questions what the real-world impacts of spreading fake information can do, look no further than the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Misinformation and disinformation are like digital viruses, and we watched them make the dramatic jump from cyberspace to the streets of Washington D.C.

Experts say, collectively, as a society, we all have to be smarter about what we tweet, retweet, like, share, heart or post to YouTube. If not, the fallout of continuing to spread false information will slowly tear apart our society.

+Recommended: News Literacy Week: Spotting fake news in a digital world

THE VIRUS OF FAKE NEWS

Fake news spreads on social media like a virus. No issue is safe. Immigration, climate change, politics, and COVID-19 are all prime targets for fake news operatives.

Recently, COVID-19 and polarization in politics have become the prime targets.

“Truth decay is the term that we use to refer to the diminishing role facts and data play in our political and civil discourse,” Jennifer Kavanagh, a Senior Scientist at RAND Corporation, a global think tank, said.

Kavanagh’s research reveals a troubling trend.

“The most shocking thing we found is that one-third of people get news from sources that they themselves report to be less reliable than other sources,” Kavanagh said. So, they know the news sources they are using are not reliable, but they continue to use them.”

Kavanagh watched in horror as the Capitol was overrun. Now, she worries about what’s next?

“Shifting to now, we’ve seen a really dramatic event at the Capitol with people injured and dead. Is that enough? Or do we have to go further down before some people change their minds?"

“This is a clear demonstration of how disinformation traveled. It doesn’t stay static; it mutates, it changes, it jumps from platform to platform,” Kavanagh said. “It starts in the extreme platforms like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. And, it gradually moves more mainstream, and that’s why it’s dangerous.”

Once the echo chamber of hate reaches the masses, it is even harder to convince people it is fake. Planting just one tiny seed of doubt can be enough to sway the masses.

This isn’t a new concept — fake news and disinformation have always had a place in society. During WWII, Nazi Germany perfected the lie machine.

“Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth” is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels.

Experts say social media can exacerbate the problem.

“Correcting false information, once it is already out there, is only going to reach so many people,” Kavanagh said.

MEDIA LITERACY

The question now. What can we do to stop the spread? And what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

“Misinformation is false information that is spread by mistake,” Alex Mahadevan, a senior multimedia reporter at the Poynter Institute, said. “This might be your aunt who shares a miracle coronavirus cure. She just wants to help; she doesn’t know it's fake, that it is misinformation.”

Mahadevan is part of a new project at Poynter called MediaWise. Their online mission statement is “to empower people of all ages to be more critical consumers of content online. We teach people key digital literacy skills to spot misinformation and disinformation so they can make decisions based on facts, not fiction.”

The key takeaway for the MediaWise project is the belief “that when facts prevail, democracy wins.

“Ask who is behind the information? What is the evidence? And what are other sources saying? And really, it all boils down to those three questions,” Mahadevan said.

REAL WORLD IMPACTS

A quick online search reveals several instances of the impacts fake news can have on society. Violent and sometimes deadly events have happened in the United States and across the globe.

2014, in Myanmar, false rape claims circulating on Facebook led to the deaths of two people. A Myanmar court later convicted five people for spreading the fabricated allegations that a Muslim man raped a Buddhist woman.

2016, Washington D.C., the conspiracy theory dubbed “Pizzagate” happened. Edgar Maddison Welch fired shots inside a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong. The father of two entered Comet Ping Pong to free children from a child sex trafficking ring connected to Hillary Clinton. The ring does not exist, never existed and was completely fabricated.

2018, India was rocked by extreme violence that started with rumors spreading via WhatsApp. According to PBS Newshour, more than a dozen people were killed by mobs “convinced by messages that the people they are lynching are guilty of child trafficking, organ harvesting or other egregious acts.”

2021, Capitol riots. Five people died, including Veteran Ashli Babbitt, 35, an avid supporter of Trump, her family said.

‘CHAOS, AT WORST CIVIL WAR'

Where do we go from here?

"What we saw in DC was fake news, the conspiracy theories, the things people assumed would stay on Facebook and on Twitter coming down into the street becoming real life,” Fadi Quran said. “What happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook.”

Quran is the Campaigns Director for Avaaz. The nonprofit launched in 2007 to be a voice for global issues surrounding human rights, healthcare, climate change and democracy. Their focus now is fighting fake news.

“We begin living in these echo chambers believing things about our neighbor, our families, our communities, our leaders that are not true because we are so flooded with these lies,” Quran said. "In the last year, there were about 2 times as many views across the U.S. on misinformation content on social media compared to 2016. So, the problem is only getting worse.”

Quran says the good news is that most people have not fallen for these types of conspiracy theories. The worry remains that if we don’t educate everyone on how to use social media responsibly, fake news will continue to spread, causing governments to crumble.

"The threat here is that in other democracies across the world, this type of scenario where society keeps ripping apart because of falsehoods actually leads them to at minimum chaos at worst civil war,” Quran said.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked Quran to grade social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were censoring social media.

“They really are not changing them. The truth is they are using bandaids on bullet wounds in our democracy,” Quran said. “ If we fix that, researchers indicate on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, that alone could decrease the reach and impact of false and misleading content by up to 90 percent, that’s huge. But yes, after the responsibility of tech platforms to clean up their act, there is an individual responsibility on all of us until that happens to be careful. To trust but verify. Always to make sure we are asking how do I get my information what type of information is this and is it coming from a verifiable source that is trustworthy.”

SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIONS

Twitter and Facebook recently banned former President Donald Trump on their platforms. We reached out to Facebook regarding Quran’s statement that they were putting “band-aids on bullet wounds.”

We got a lengthy media response from Facebook with several links on how they stop the spread of misinformation.

Kevin McAlister with Facebook said they have a three-part strategy to stop the spread of fake news.

“For example, we’ve cracked down on fake accounts, which are often the ones spreading misinformation - we now disable more than a million fake accounts per day at the point of creation. We also take down voter suppression or any misinformation that could cause real-world violence or imminent harm. We also reject any ad that is debunked by our fact-checkers,” McAlister said.

Quran says knowledge is power. And he is still optimistic about the future of social media and what can be a powerful tool for good in our society.

“I think there is hope. I don’t want to sound hopeless I think our generation can actually be the generation that makes America strong, safer, and solve this problem,” Quran said. “We don’t need the next generation, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work."