Stop the spread: The dangers of misinformation

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Hanna Hornfeld

The more polarized we become, the less likely we are to have intelligent, informed, and civilized debates. If we are locked into thinking that “we are always right and the other side is always wrong,” it becomes difficult for us to discern truth from opinion.

This mindset is partially responsible for the frightening number of people who give credence to false truths. Beliefs that climate change is not real, that COVID-19 was manufactured in a lab, or that vaccines will cause harm reveal just how widespread this affliction has become. And it doesn’t only affect people we hear about in the news. Friends and family members have told me that “the left supports racial segregation” and that there were no human-caused wildfires in the Amazon rainforest before President Jair Boslonaro came to power. 

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has notoriously used social media to make baseless assertions and spread misleading information. Reporters have compiled lists of tens of thousands of false and misleading statements that the President has made throughout his term. These lies culminated last week when Trump’s repeated claims that the election was stolen caused a mob of angry protesters to attack the Capitol, Twitter and Facebook removed Trump’s platform. 

The danger of misinformation has existed long before the internet, as illustrated in the 20th century — from Hitler’s emotionally charged speeches about a “master race” to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fear tactics used against alleged Communists during the Red Scare. People with an influential platform have always been able to manipulate others into believing what they want. Social media has just acted as an accelerant, as algorithms trap people in echo chambers of their own beliefs and social media companies are not held accountable. 

As these echo chambers lead to collective narcissism, an exaggerated confidence in the popularity of the opinion of a group one belongs to, people become more fixed in their beliefs and more isolated from views that contradict their own. Research has found that this polarization makes people even more inclined to trust information that supports their biases and disbelieve information that contradicts them, regardless of that information’s basis in fact. This phenomenon, called confirmation bias, occurs across the political spectrum. A 2019 study conducted by Nottingham Trent University researchers Craig Harper and Thom Baguley, titled “‘You are Fake News’: Ideological Asymmetries in Perceptions of Media Legitimacy,” found that people on the left and right were equally inclined to believe false news that affirmed their preexisting biases. Regardless of our politics, we are undeniably susceptible to misinformation.

None of us can single-handedly solve the problem of misinformation in the world, but we can individually take steps to protect ourselves and others from falling prey to it. As students, we are still developing our approach to processing information. As long as we are consuming news — especially on social media — we need to be critical of it. Fact-check everything before you repost it. If cited, I like to refer to the original source to check the context and see if and how an account spun information to drive home their point. I also try to find that information from a source that I trust. I always ask myself why I am reposting something. Is it playing on my emotional need for positive reinforcement, or is it a genuine attempt to share relevant information with others? 

Avoid consuming all of your information from one outlet. Try to diversify your sources by deliberately reading opinions that you disagree with or news from places you wouldn’t normally turn to. And don’t read these sources just to see what the “wrong side” is saying — genuinely appraise the thinking of others, and consider it as you form your own ideas. I used to turn to conservative news outlets and Twitter accounts to scorn views different to my own and expose myself to opinions that I could then counter in future arguments. Now, when I read articles and watch videos that conservative friends and family members share with me, I try to approach them as open-mindedly as possible. This is difficult to do and I usually end up disagreeing with much of what is said, but I find that if I don’t dismiss the article from the beginning, I can come across a point that I agree with. 

Even if my overall opinion remains unchanged, I can at least sincerely understand someone else’s point of view and value the thought behind it instead of reflexively dismissing their arguments as illogical and ridiculous. This approach may be difficult, and I am still working on incorporating this attitude into my life, but I believe the extra effort can be worthwhile for all of us.