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A perfect storm

It's hard to imagine conditions better suited for misinformation to thrive than the upheaval, isolation and confusion created by the events that unfolded over the past year. The ongoing pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, a profoundly divisive presidential election and a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol created widespread uncertainty, stoking fear, anger and urgency. It was a perfect storm for rumors, conspiracy theories and political propaganda.

For this issue, we compiled three key misinformation insights that came into sharper focus over the last nine months.

  1. Misinformation is driven by human needs and vulnerabilities.
    Falsehoods appeal to our innate need to make sense of our world, including our desire to simplify complex realities, identify enemies and foster a sense of control, community and belonging. Falsehoods also seize on our vulnerabilities. They capitalize on cognitive biases and exploit deeply held beliefs and values to slip past our rational defenses.
  2. Misinformation is often performative.
    People who like and share things on social media are often driven by “the desire to attract and please followers/friends or to signal one’s group membership” and fail to focus on the accuracy of the information, according to a recent studypublished in the journal Nature. Influential people with large followings also “perform” misinformation, driving a high proportion of false narratives online for popularity, or for financial or ideological gain. Some even admit under pressure that they are not engaged in good-faith discourse and should not be considered credible sources of information.
  3. Misinformation is participatory.
    As University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird and other members of the Election Integrity Partnership have pointed out, disinformation does not just flow from influencers and political elites to audiences in a top-down fashion. False narratives are also generated from the bottom-up. Nowhere was this circular and participatory cycle more apparent than in the swarm of electionfraud rumors started by ordinary people who — primed to see “evidence” of fraud — spread misinterpretations about the routine actions of election workers. This same dynamic often fuels the spread of COVID-19 vaccine rumors that are based on misperceptions of standard medical practices.

While these takeaways may seem bleak, they do offer some good news. Researchers have refined their understanding of how misinformation is generated and why people are vulnerable to it, and are developing a more accurate picture of its true costs. The pandemic and the 2020 election increased the pressure on social media platforms to take more assertive action to minimize harm and enforce their existing community standards. Educators in schools across the country and around the world worked diligently to help steer their students through an increasingly sophisticated information environment.

Misinformation isn’t going to fade as a major concern anytime soon. But the lessons learned from this past year can help better equip us as we work to curb its spread in the future.

News Literacy Project, May 25, 2021

"All Generalizations are False" v.3

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This LibGuide was created by Kathy Fester and uses resources from the Tacoma Community College Fake News guide.

The content is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commerical license.