Six Months Of Misinformation: Is Reality Making A Comeback?

A short assessment of how the information distribution ecosystem has changed since COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd

When 2016 began, I was on the road, taking along with me a rather pessimistic message about disinformation to state and local election officials.  Many were, to borrow a phrase, exhibiting learned helplessness in the face of relentless disinformation campaigns and because they were continually being warned my authorities, by academics (like me), and by campaigns that that had better the hell prepare for the 2020 election.  My goal was convince them that they could do something on a local level.  That sounds pretty vacuous.  Something, meaning: they can manage their media relationships better, or perhaps learn about confirmation bias, and try to get an intern to draw up some snazzy mobile graphics with pithy slogans.  Bigger advice: build an army of civic institutions in your community to fight disinformation, immunize your audience against misinformation by repeating truths and inoculating them against potential falsehoods early, and employ the truth sandwich method of correction when you couldn’t avoid amplifying a false claim.

But the feedback I got was:  Ok. We can do some of this. But, really, the problem is a scale problem.  And we can supply a degree of literacy but we can’t force our audience to become literate.  And that audience, and they were speaking largely of people online, is institutionally and neurochemically conditioned to fall for misinformation, to spread it, to resist efforts to contain it.  They were right. I mean: what accounts for a series of really smart Democratic officials retweeting an obviously fake screenshot/tweet from a parodist twitter feed having Lindsey Graham proclaiming that he trusts Donald Trump more than he does science. This was in March. I kept saying: literally one click. ONE click to see the guy’s account, and you’d know that his shtick was hyperbolic humor.  And then the same smart folks retweeting an obviously fake New York Times “Breaking News” piece about the “death” of Kim Jong-Un. ONE CLICK and you’d see that the account didn’t belong to the New York Times.  I’m not picking on Democrats.  It’s easy to see who makes mistakes in good faith and who… well.

The President is a unique actor; the single biggest domestic source of misinformation we have, and amplification warnings don’t usually apply because his Twitter account reaches his followers automatically, either directly or through literally one hop (from Fox News) or to a Facebook page.  Reporting on them or not reporting on them doesn’t reduce their salience; often the harder the pushback from the media, the more resolutely deeper his supporters dig in. Even when it makes no sense. Especially when it makes no sense.    And look, academics want to attribute this to almost anything but sheer glee that Trump is so glibly irritating the establishment… whether it’s a lack of an agreement about how to reach the truth, to the ongoing decay in institutions that we hold confidence in to tell us the truth, to political polarization…. and everyone wonders if there’s some breaking point, where gaslighting is extinguished by a gush of tears from exhaustion of having to play this game over and over.  This is just a hard problem. 

And the media, and the press, and the platforms, and reality ALL had to intervene.

And then the coronavirus began to hijack cells and reproduce, and suddenly we were all at home or very scared and at work, and a few things happened, none of them really the work of a single actor. I think these social turns are in part a consequence of how directly deadly misinformation became in a very short period of time.  I think that individuals began to see the first order effects of misinformation – this can harm me, this IS harming me – rather than consign it to a second order political interaction.  (people are messing with my vote).

1.     Misinformation became a meta-narrative. ( Fake news is no longer a phrase with meaning because it has become a stand-in for a thing itself; it’s a conceptual rephrasing of a statement you like or don’t.)  But labeling something as misinformation is a lot harder to weaponize.  So there’s something out there, like a video of two local doctors saying weird things about the coronavirus.  And some friend of yours on Facebook labels it as misinformation.  So, then you say: ok, we’re applying labels. We’re making no progress.  Ah – but.  Then, another friend might join the chain and say… prove it to me.  Show me receipts.  And the more truthful a thing is, the more likely it is that you can access some slightly more original version of it, with some official-looking language and an institutional backing that carries some weight among some people.   And then, you can link that to receipt by saying: see for yourself.   I believe, but I cannot prove, that to try and spread misinformation by labeling something TRUE or MOSTLY true, as misinformation, backfires because people are more likely to want to see proof.  Have you noticed this on your social feeds? Demands for more proof?  I have. 

2.     As a direct consequence of bad information about the coronavirus, civically minded people began to seek out and spread good information about the coronavirus because they felt obligated to as a member of their community.  Good messaging worked: stay home. Don’t spread the disease.  Flatten the curve.  In tandem, people began to flag misinformation more frequently, or chide their friends for posting it, or ask to see proof.  People developed their own media competence.

3.     The platforms responded to the existential threat of disease by accelerating their counter-misinformation efforts.

4.     Some in the press began to take serious the notion that misinformation promulgated by the executive branch was a civic emergency, and maybe… it was time to start making choices about whether to even cover the President in certain scenarios. 

5.     The scariest creature ever to haunt a media manager/editor’s mind is getting something wrong, but the second snarliest beast is the perception of being seen as biased.  Life and death kicked that monster in the teeth. He’s still there, but he is not as important.

6.     And then came another murder of a black man by the police, and it was captured on video, and the President decided to tweet out a threat of violence, and Twitter had enough. It called the President out. It forced people who wanted to retweet his tweet to comment on it, which has the effect of forcing you to explain why you liked it or why you don’t.  That’s a hell of a nudge.

7.     The President retaliated with a weird executive order, and now a cadre of formerly anti-government conservatives, folks who hated the Fairness Doctrine, suddenly want to repeal (or enforce – it’s not quite clear) – section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms the latitude to regulate user-generated content without worry that the government is going to arbitrarily impose editorial standards.   

8.     An already existing academic/non-profit nexus of antiracism actors flood the discourse with opportunistic appeals to a cause.

9.     Massive, organic protests break out across the country; the media initially focuses on looting and the flashier aspects, but then refocuses and largely adopts the narrative that the actors above have been creatively curating.  In some newsrooms, it is OK to be a reporter and to stand with black people against police violence and for criminal justice reform.

10.  A debate is happening, in full view of everyone, about what constitutes fairness in journalism, and whether the pursuit of the truth is compatible with the pursuit of other virtues – and whether reporters can do good reporting that reflects well on their publishers while expressing actual views about these social goods.  Can journalism take a stand?  An op-ed, solicited by the New York Times, led to the resignation of an editor.  Surely unpopular ideas in a metropolitan newsroom are worth publishing, especially if they’re provocative, but they ought to be (or so the consensus – I think – has it) interesting, relevant to the times, accurate, and written in good faith.  And some pieces can be dangerous – speech acts – when published at certain points.  (Disclosures: I went to college with Sen. Cotton, with Sewell Chan, I was edited by James Bennet, and I’ve written op-eds for the Times.)

11.  Social media bias lawsuits keep failing.

So: now the bad and the ugly. 

1.     Public health communication from the World Health Organization was an abomination.

2.     Really harmful disinformation and misinformation still spreads virally, and often without sanction, at uncontainable speeds. 

3.     The media still doesn’t know how to do a proper fact check with framing and visual cues.

4.     Foreign actors are amplifying misinformation to create social and cultural paralysis

5.     The platforms could do a lot more than they are doing, but what would need to do at scale is not coterminous with their business obligations or even their values.

6.     Scientists debating scientists on Twitter was both immensely clarifying: journalists and everyone else had easy access to some of the best minds on the planet, thinking in real time about life or death questions.  Normally, those debates happen behind closed doors because to expose to light necessarily exposes how uncertain science is, especially about a new phenomenon or disease.

7.     This uncertainty was deliberately gamed, it was weaponized politically (think of the campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci), and it was also, for a lot of people who don’t have time to read their Thomas Kuhn, quite puzzling.  Do we wear masks? Do we not? Asymptomatic? What does that mean?

8.     Public officials in the United States tried to manipulate coronavirus statistics to speed up economic reopening.

9.     In the United States, more than 100 journalists were attacked by state, local and federal authorities while reporting.

10.     In some newsrooms, it remains verboten to stand with black people against police violence. Some black reporters were not allowed to report on the protests. As an actual caveat: there remains no single accepted definition of what racial justice is, what equity means, what IS and what IS not good, so people who aren’t sure about what to say will signal their virtue or stay silent. 

11.     What Matt Welch calls a “noisy illiberalism” – a hyperfast, hyperbolic cancel culture is spreading rapidly among the ranks of the media.  

To me, the most important developments in the information ecosystem are:

1.     A renewed curiosity about media competence among the public

2.     Misinformation becomes a metanarrative

3.     Less of a tolerance for arguments in bad faith (and in some quarters, less of a tolerance for arguments)

4.     State violence against the press

5.     A renewed attention to systemic discrimination and racism within the gatekeeping institutions of society

6.     Platform self-regulation begins, privileging a value where access to accurate information is seen as more of a right than an obligation to publish all voices

What about you? What have I missed?  Are these good or bad or neutral? Or something else?

Let me know, and I’ll gather the best responses in a future essay.