Disinformation inoculation, issue 1: considering the purpose

by Sam Leitch, editor

If I were to ask you to picture a conspiracy theorist, the portrayal likely wouldn’t be flattering. Maybe they have the bare minimum amount of fuzz for a mustache encrusting their upper lip, or a tighter grip on their tinfoil hat than on reality. Maybe they’re sweaty and unemployed, feverishly pinning images of Obama to a cork board with more red yarn than a thousand grandmas will crochet with in their lifetimes. 

“When planes fly over the edge of the earth, they pop out the other side like Pacman!” this caricature would say, and you cannot help but scoff at their expense.

The problem is that this portrait is reductive. We start to get the feeling that we’re invincible, like sophomores rolling our eyes at the grisly crashes they have to show us during driver’s ed: “Yeah, right. That won’t be me.”

A look down the rabbit hole

Anyone can be indoctrinated into a conspiracy, and those who fall down the rabbit hole aren’t necessarily stupid for doing so. Especially now, in an era where information of doubtful authenticity gets traded like Pokemon cards. That is, if Pokemon cards posed a tangible threat to American democracy.

Although… victims of disinformation aren’t always malicious, the creators and perpetrators knowingly pass on lies like a virus.

Here’s a quick fact: in 2018, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that a Jewish-funded laser beam caused the California wildfires, citing several QAnon conspiracies.

Here’s another: the results of the 2020 election may disrupt the integrity of future elections. Spurred by President Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims of election fraud, states like Georgia are introducing restrictive voter laws. Georgia’s House Bill 531 aims to crack down on early voting, absentee voting and weekend voting, which statistically is when the state sees its largest Black voter turnout, according to Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Meanwhile, audits and recounts found no such collusion. 

In their report The Truth About Voter Fraud, The Brennan Center for Justice found that fraud makes up between .0003 percent and .0025 percent of all votes, and that most reported instances are due to “clerical errors or bad data matching practices.” For the average American, they noted, it is more likely that they will “be struck by lightning than…impersonate another voter at the polls.”

However, Trump’s online presence and caustic rhetoric turbocharged a non-issue the GOP has hyped up for years to suppress other demographics, allowing him to harness the topic of “voter fraud” for his own gain. This is frightening—not because our former president is some big bad who created disinformation, but because he is only one player in a metanarrative web of fake news designed to sway the political scene. 

Like cult deprogrammer Diane Benscoter once said, we need to vaccinate our community. No, not from Covid-19—although that’d be appreciated as well—but from disinformation: while misinformation is accidental, disinformation is a deliberate fabrication; it’s the kind of lie engineered to sneak its way into social feeds, policy discussions and households nationwide. Disinformation always obstructs the healthy operation of democratic government. It incites demand for solutions to problems that don’t exist. And, in the case of groups like QAnon, it promotes domestic terrorism.

Although I said victims of disinformation aren’t always malicious, the creators and perpetrators knowingly pass on lies like a virus. If we want to keep this nation from imploding in on itself, it is our duty to first inoculate ourselves, then those we care about, then the general public.

This article is the first in a series on disinformation, aimed at giving you the tools to examine and attack this scourge. So without further ado, step 1: considering the purpose.

Consider the purpose

Everything, and I mean everything, shared on the internet has a purpose: even something as innocuous as a meme might be to garner followers, bank on revenue from ad deals or sway others to a political viewpoint. When we engage with information online, we need to ask ourselves exactly what the purpose is: to sell, to persuade, to enrage, to entertain or to inform?

It goes without saying, but if we want to find information, we should be looking for sources whose primary goal is to inform. 

Okay, now time for a pop quiz! Can you identify what the purpose of this image might be?

Well, can you? It might be easy here, within the sterile ones and zeros of this webpage, but tell me: if you encountered this image in the wild, could you identify what its purpose is? Could your parents? Your grandparents?

The first step to identifying purpose is in the details: what does it choose to reveal, and what does it choose to conceal? If this image intended to inform, would it include such a threatening image? What is the connotation of referring to Black people as “Blacks?”

This image is meant to enrage. Now what if I revealed that in the actual dataset, white people are about as likely to be killed by another white person as a Black person is by another Black person?

Might not raise any eyebrows from our more experienced readers, but what if I told you the Crime Statistics Bureau doesn’t even exist—another clear red flag. Nothing?

Okay…shoot. How about if, in some bizarre, alternate reality with no resemblance to our own, this exact image was retweeted by the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, immediately before his first campaign?

But, that’d be too crazy…right? 

Go figure

If the post isn’t from a credible news source, immediately be skeptical; this is because for credible news sources—like NPR, The Press Democrat or Reuters—their role is to inform. When it comes to other platforms, their purpose gets harder to determine.

For example, I’ve seen social justice accounts like @chnge and @feminist skyrocket in popularity since 2020, getting shared by my friends fairly often. However, both are owned by entrepreneur Jacob Castaldi to promote his clothing line, revealing a hidden purpose: capitalizing on recent activist movements to sell. 

So here is a general rule of thumb: get information from credible sources. Platforms that are peer-reviewed and well-known. For example, if The New York Times misrepresents the truth, they’ll be under fire in seconds, but a Facebook page named TruthLibertyJusticeHunters? Not so much. 

Might seem obvious, but when one in five adults get news from social media, absorbing apocryphal claims in their passive, glass-eyed scrolling stupor, this advice becomes more necessary than ever. Social media can be a great place to learn that things are happening, but if you want to stay informed, reading from credible sources is the only way to do so. Some slideshow posts give works cited: check them out. And if they don’t offer that kind of assurance their information came from worthwhile sources, acknowledge something is fishy.

Check back next issue, where I’ll cover how to verify photo and video evidence, which can be taken out of context, altered or fabricated entirely.

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