The spread of misinformation has never been greater. The Internet has been an amazing resource for people to access millions of scientific papers on everything from the molecular biology of cancer to climate models. However, it has also brought with it a terribly cost: misinformation can spread much easier than carefully considered facts and has the ability to emotionally manipulate millions of people into believing this that are demonstrably false. This can influence personal beliefs, consumer decisions and perhaps even national elections.
Although this is not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination, malignant threats such as post-truth, fake news, filter bubbles, “alternative” facts and fake fact checkers have spread enormously in recent years. This article takes a closer look at each of these threats, what they mean and how they can be fought. Although there are no simple answers at this point and skeptics as well as scientists struggle to find workable solutions, there are a few clues available.
2016 will go down in the eyes of many as a terrible year. It was the year where truth did not seem to matter anymore, only the struggle between ideological rhetoric. People by the millions came to believe demonstrably false claims. This had such an impact that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 became “post-truth”, which they defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Just looking at the frequency at which the term was used showed a massive increase during late 2016 probably due to the Brexit vote and the U. S. Presidential election of 2016 because the most common area it was used in was politics. Although scientific skeptics know of many areas where truth does not seem to matter to a lot of people, this was perhaps the first time it became international news and had far-reaching implications for world politics.
In the social media world, you get traffic by posting images, links and content that gets attention. Clickbait titles encourages users to click a link by promising to answer a vital question, telling you about how “you will never believe what happened next” as a cute or dangerous situation unfolded or giving you “that one weird trick” to accomplish a goal or keeping you healthy. When more people visit the website, they website gets to display ads to them and this brings in money because advertisers pay more the more those ads are shown.
This is further turned even more malignant by people writing entirely fake content about things that people are highly emotionally invested in, such as environment, immigration or political candidates and elections. The most effective fake content is current, deals with someone or something a lot of people strongly dislike and has a message that is bias-confirming. Fake news might have played a key role during the 2016 U. S. general selection. If you hate a politician, a story about how that politician did something bad or hypocritical is bound to be successful on social media whether or not it is true. The moment you see a story that is bias-confirming that also makes you feel schadenfreude, fear or anger, you might be dealing with a fake news story. Some ideas for how to avoid falling and spreading fake news can be found here.
When you use the Internet, you are not performing unbiased gathering of neutral and objective information. Far from it. On social media, you are the one who decides who and what to follow. This means that you decide what kind of content you see. The things you like and share goes into social media algorithms so that you are now more likely to see content from those sources that have that particular content and more importantly, that bias. Over time, the social media algorithms alter the world you see. If you are not careful, you end up in a social media filter bubble where all or most of the content you see reinforces your beliefs about the world and your ideological biases.
The problem does not stop there. Search engines such as Google also personalize your experience. The more you search for certain topics and visit certain websites, the more results from those and similar sources you will see. This is perhaps most obvious when you interact with some pseudoscience activist that seem surprised that anyone could question their faulty believes about vaccines or GMOs, because all skeptics need to do is to “search Google” for this or that search term. This is a clear sign that the person has been unknowingly lured into a filter bubble where the search engine specialization functions as a hidden technological version of confirmation bias. Technological filter bubbles, their consequences and how to escape them are covered in more detail here.
Attacking mainstream media
Those websites and organizations that promote fake news and conspiracy theories rarely acknowledge that their claims are ideological in nature and not based on evidence. They often go so far as to claim that it is they who have the correct news and the mainstream media who are the ones who promote smokescreens and fake news. This is highly ironic because mainstream media (although far from perfect) have much more intellectual standards, transparency and accountability than “alternative” news or blog networks online. It is an obvious case of psychological projection. They simply accuse the mainstream media of being the very things that the pushers of fake news themselves are: unreliable, unaccountable and untrustworthy.
Some elements of the current U. S. administration have been launching targeted misinformation campaigns where demonstrably falsehoods are being pushed as “alternative” facts. Not as genuine facts, but “alternative” facts. If this sounds Orwellian, it is because the general strategy is very reminiscent of 1984, a book that recently reached #1 on Amazon books even though it was written almost 70 years ago. This strategy is deeply unsettling because it mirrors that of “alternative” medicine whereby proponents denigrate real medicine that works and praises fake treatments that are typically ineffective, harmful or both. It is not only a declaration of war against the media, but against reality itself: if you do not like the real facts, invent your own “alternative” facts and hope that you can mislead people into believing them. Although this originated with senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on the topic of audience size for the Trump inauguration, it has the real potential to set a new precedent where politicians can just lie about demonstrable facts and get away with it. The battlefield of “alternative facts” are discussed in additional detail here.
Fake fact checkers
Not only are we experiencing a culture where truth is no longer the most important aspect of a story, where people are easily mislead by fake news pretending to be real news, where they isolate themselves in ideological communities divorced from contradicting information and where “alternative” facts are being pushed to drown out the real thing. There are also early indications that misinformation proponents have started trying to imitate real fact checkers. Because many people are increasingly becoming aware that there is a lot of bullshit on the Internet, they must now parasitize on the credibility of fact checkers much like pseudoscience and quackery attempt to mimic real science to gain a superficial veneer of credibility. This has the potential to be enormously damaging to the fight for science and reason. A detailed case study of a fake fact checker being exposed can be found here.
How to survive the misinformation wars
These challenges seem incredible and nearly insurmountable. How can the media and individuals even begin to challenge the monstrosity of misinformation?
Be a consistent skeptic. Hand out no free passes. When politicians promote pseudoscience, their claims are fair game for criticism. Ignore the loud voices complaining that you should stick to science only and ignore issues that are related to science in e. g. politics. Understand that pseudoscience is broader than just the natural sciences and that bigotry often rest of false claims about the world. Push for evidence-based politics. Make skepticism intellectually global. Talk to others about these issues and teach them how to spot bullshit on the Internet.
Screw tribalism and never apologize for fact checking. Learn more about common denialist tactics and how to efficiently refute them. Be a skeptical activist on your own terms to avoid the burnout. Learn about how to critically evaluate flawed scientific papers that pseudoscience activists rely on. Learn how to debunk myths without reinforcing them. Remember the victories and focus on boosting the signal to crowd out the noise.
This will not be an easy fight. It will not only take strength and determination, but a revolutionized and reimagined way to communicate science and critical thinking.