Recent Read: “Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder”

Don’t miss the excellent and thought-provoking analysis by Claire Wardle (U.S. director at the nonprofit First Draft) on Scientific American. Some highlights:

 

During the past three years the discussion around the causes of our polluted information ecosystem has focused almost entirely on actions taken (or not taken) by the technology companies. But this fixation is too simplistic. A complex web of societal shifts is making people more susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy. Trust in institutions is falling because of political and economic upheaval, most notably through ever widening income inequality. The effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced. Global migration trends spark concern that communities will change irrevocably. The rise of automation makes people fear for their jobs and their privacy.

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Having monitored misinformation in eight elections around the world since 2016, I have observed a shift in tactics and techniques. The most effective disinformation has always been that which has a kernel of truth to it, and indeed most of the content being disseminated now is not fake—it is misleading. Instead of wholly fabricated stories, influence agents are reframing genuine content and using hyperbolic headlines. The strategy involves connecting genuine content with polarizing topics or people. Because bad actors are always one step (or many steps) ahead of platform moderation, they are relabeling emotive disinformation as satire so that it will not get picked up by fact-checking processes. In these efforts, context, rather than content, is being weaponized. The result is intentional chaos.

Understanding how each one of us is subject to such campaigns—and might unwittingly participate in them—is a crucial first step to fighting back against those who seek to upend a sense of shared reality. Perhaps most important, though, accepting how vulnerable our society is to manufactured amplification needs to be done sensibly and calmly. Fearmongering will only fuel more conspiracy and continue to drive down trust in quality-information sources and institutions of democracy. There are no permanent solutions to weaponized narratives. Instead we need to adapt to this new normal. Just as putting on sunscreen was a habit that society developed over time and then adjusted as additional scientific research became available, building resiliency against a disordered information environment needs to be thought about in the same vein.

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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