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Fixing disinformation won’t save us

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I’m quoted today in an excellent article by Jose Del Real in the Washington Post. The article addresses the ongoing challenges we are likely to face as a nation as we cope with the aftermath of a president and an administration actively at war with the truth. It is unlikely that alternate reality conspiracy theories like QAnon will evaporate simply because Trump has lost an election – indeed, the power of the “stop the steal” narrative to drive attacks on the Capitol should give us pause about the dangerous forces unleashed when large numbers of public figures embrace narratives that are simply not true.

Detail from a QAnon conspiracy map from the remarkable and disturbing Deep State Mapping Project.

Jose’s an excellent reporter and does WAY more work than the minimum you’d need to publish a piece like this. What that means is that hours of conversations turn into a quote or two in an article. But in this case, I happen to have an email that I sent, responding to Jose’s question about how people can be prevented from falling into disinformation bubbles like QAnon. Here’s what I wrote in response. (I’ve added hyperlinks for the blog post that were not in the email.)

Jose, that’s a massive question that no one has found an adequate solution to.

It’s worth noting that it’s not an internet question so much as it is a media and education question. There was a horrific wave of disinformation that led to the English Civil War in the mid-1640s – historians now point to Charles I losing control of the presses in London. A wave of anti-Catholic pamphlets rife with misinformation led eventually to Charles’ execution, his son’s exile and the rule of England under Cromwell and Parliament. In the long run, it also led to the establishment of the Royal Society, whose motto “Nullus in Verba” translates roughly as “Take no one’s word for it”, an explicit warning against the dangers of disinformation. This is not a new problem.

We know that it’s possible to recover from waves of disinformation because we’ve done it before. One thing that helps is when media and political authorities stop amplifying misinformation and support the consensus reality. Erick Trickey wrote a good piece in WaPo yesterday arguing that the paranoid and conspiracy-mongering John Birch Society (which led Hofstader to write “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”!) was dethroned by William Buckley’s fierce attacks on them in the National Review and Reagan’s refusal to accept their support.

The parallel here: if Fox News and major republican leaders stopped supporting conspiracy theories, perhaps we could reduce their spread and decenter them from the heart of the Republican party. Reagan and Buckley didn’t attack the media systems that were spreading Bircher propaganda (much of which moved through the mail, through magazines and through word of mouth) – they renounced the politics from the positions of power in their respective institutions.

There have been countless fact-checking and other efforts designed to rid social media of misinformation. They’re not going to work until the party and the major ideological amplifiers start explicitly renouncing these points of view. The signs are not good – while Fox News was willing to declare that Joe Biden had won the election, they are still providing platforms for people denying the facts of the victory. And a majority of Republican representatives voted to overturn a democratic election. Until there are consequences for perpetuating those falsehoods, don’t count on changes to the media to solve this problem.

It was those last two sentences Jose chose to close the piece, and I’m glad he did. I am increasingly convinced that we’re looking in the wrong places to solve our problems of information disorder. I’m less convinced that this is a problem of information systems and increasingly convinced that this is a problem of power and responsibility.

Obviously, I believe that information is important: that’s why I became a communications scholar comparatively late in life. I am grateful for the work of brilliant colleagues – Joan Donovan, Renee DiResta, Kate Starbird, Claire Wardle, Julia Ebner and so many others – who are working to document and understand the spread of mis and disinformation from distant corners of the internet into mainstream media dialog. Thus far, I’ve found the model that Yochai Benkler and his collaborators outline in Network Propaganda the best frame for understanding how disinformation gets normalized, but I worry that it places too much blame on media organizations like CNN and the New York Times and not enough on those in positions of political power who benefit from disinformation.

Blaming social media is too easy an explanation for the terrible situation we collectively find ourselves in as a nation. According to polling this week, 7 in 10 Republicans believe Biden was not legitimately elected. For many Republican politicians, there is little incentive to challenge this false narrative: due to gerrymandering, winning their primary is equivalent to winning re-election, and no one wants to alienate 70% of their voters. Whether we “fix” Facebook or YouTube, whether or not we deplatform more QAnon folk or drive militia members into encrypted chat spaces, two more years of elected leaders repeating disinformation is going to hurt us as a society.

It is not clear that Trump’s departure from the White House will be a departure from the political stage. So long as he threatens a run in 2024, media outlets will feel compelled to report on his words and thoughts. Ignoring a former president is hard for news outlets to do – ignoring a candidate for president in 2024 is virtually impossible. One of the many fears I am nursing at the moment is that no one will emerge to tell Republicans that they need to abandon the obvious mistruths around Trump’s defeat and become full partners in governing a nation that’s going through a very rough patch.

In other words, I think we’re trying to fix social media in part because it’s too hard and too scary to fix our political system. The problem is that even if we build better, more thoughtful, more careful media systems – as I thoroughly believe we should do – they may not be able to help us through a moment where many of our leaders embrace a demonstrably false narrative. This creates an impossible dillema for news media: report on what Republican leaders say and amplify disinformation, or agree not to report on some substantial percentage of our elected representatives.

I do not mean to minimize the problem of political disinformation. I think there are serious vulnerabilities with existing media systems, including the tendency to amplify the most angry and passionate voices over those seeking common ground and concilliation. I worry thought that our fascination with shiny new problems – deep fakes, QAnon, social media echo chambers and algorithmic influence – is pulling us away from basic and fundamental political problems that we are a long way from solving.

The post Fixing disinformation won’t save us appeared first on Ethan Zuckerman.


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