I took a peek at one of my childhood friends’ Facebook feeds and spotted 16-times he’s shared a debunked conspiracy theory, cheapfake video or politically-charged falsehood.
It’s being called the worst pandemic in modern history. I’m not talking about COVID-19 – thought it most certainly applies here, too – I’m talking about the dangerous, disturbing, and even deadly spread of misinformation online.
You can’t go on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – to name a few – without seeing examples of it all over the place, from people posting old photos as if it’s current news and information to the more nefarious trolls, bots, deepfakes and online agitators.
No matter how much big tech companies and others pledge to contain this toxic spread, it’s up to us to actually do something about it.
Take a look at your own feeds
We’ve all done it – spotted that headline, photo, or emotional post from someone’s uncle or “friend,” that underscores everything we already think and feel – and passed it on. It’s human nature. Add a pandemic, failing trust in authority figures, feelings of fear and lack of control – all while stuck at home, and we have a perfect storm for an infodemic. “The environment created by the pandemic has bred a multitude of falsehoods even as truth has become a matter of life and death,” write the authors of a new paper in Psychological Science who investigated why people believe and spread false information about COVID-19. “In the case of COVID-19, this misinformation comes in many forms – from conspiracy theories about the virus being created as a biological weapon in China to claims that coconut oil kills the virus.”
The fix, however tempting, is not to fight with, or shame people in social media circles, nor is it as easy as pointing people toward the truth. “Turning around those who buy into false information is not as simple as piercing epistemic bubbles (sic) with facts,” says Christopher Robichaud, senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School told the Harvard Gazette recently. I took a peek at one of my childhood friends’ Facebook feeds and spotted 16 times he’s shared a debunked conspiracy theory, cheapfake video or politically-charged falsehood.
He’s one of only a handful of people I haven’t already “Unfriended” over misinformation – because I know he doesn’t do it knowingly or maliciously – and I’m cautiously optimistic that non-judgmental nudges (like this column) will help him and others flatten this curve of confusion.