5 Social Side-Effects Of Disinformation
It is not a well-kept secret that we're in an era ripe with the trappings of digital-isolation. While some argue that we're actually closer than ever -- being able to keep in contact with folks scattered across the globe -- the quality of these interactions is less than those of the in-person kind. There's something magical about that face-to-face interaction with our fellow human beings.
More to the point -- people are left craving a sense of community and belonging. There is a void that has developed as part of our new social dynamic, and that void has further expanded as a result of the first act of a medical dystopia movie we're currently navigating. People are now desperately seeking out that feeling of closeness and those feelings have left space for something dangerous to sneak: misinformation and conspiracies ...
Online Groups Are Getting Really Weird
When missing that sense of community, online groups have become a quick fix for the isolated. You may be familiar with Facebook Groups: the quirky little feature from the brain of the alien android called Mark Zuckerberg. Well, unsurprising to almost anyone who's been keeping up with the news, Facebook is (allegedly) pivoting away from its "Hey, it's called free speech" approach when they realized that around "70% of the top 100 most active US Civic Groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinfo, bullying and harassment."
That's just Facebook, though. There's a player in this game that, while a lot less prominent than the social media giant, has a lot more danger tied into it: Nextdoor. If you aren't familiar, Nextdoor is a social media app with about 10 million users that focuses on hyper-locality rather than the large scale of Facebook. It's more like a hot garbage fire engulfing your neighbor's trash can rather than your city's dump. You have to give your address to make an account, and your "group" are your literal neighbors. Apps like these are particularly infamous, from everything to exaggerating fear in local crime and to helping enable racial profiling.
The most telling issue, though, is how difficult it is to moderate these groups. Since hyper-locality is the nature of neighborhood apps, and there's so much to have to police, it relies on a ton of local moderators. These local moderators are unpaid random members of these communities, so there's no real incentive for them to do their job right other than just ethical assumptions. Meaning that you're left relying on an individual's personal moral compass, which is how we get were reports of moderators deleting posts about Black Lives Matter as a more "mild" example.
These groups end up becoming lawless areas where people tend to throw down over everything and circulate conspiracies and misinformation. Rather than bringing communities together, and helping raise that social capital, they just tear people apart and devolve into massive unmoderated fights over everything from vaccines containing microchips and that tea tree oil is a suitable replacement to washing your hands, to Trump being God's gift to America fighting against cannibals and pedophiles. Seeing your neighbors spout such insanity creates a McCarthy-level paranoia, leaving people wondering if that kind person from down the street, who always drops a pie around the holidays, is really a card-carrying Antifa assassin or QAnon quack.
Yoga And New Agey Types Are Getting Into It
Surprise: wellness communities are falling into QAnon conspiracies. Who could have expected that the people who believe crystals have magic healing powers have some hot takes on Covid?
It really is a bit of a slippery slope with the wellness world. What may have started off as a holistic medicine post like, "Here's a turmeric-infused green juice immunity shot that will help give you a boost," can turn into a complete rejection of modern medicine and common-sense recommendations of doctors and researchers. It seems that the acceptance of alternative belief systems made it rather easy to accept alternative facts.
Yoga and health & wellness influencers alike have fallen into this trap. It's not uncommon to be scrolling Instagram and posts in the typical aspirational style post about "saving the children" and "Covid is a Hoax." The conspiracies, along with their underlying messaging designed to sow misinformation and create a racial divide, have been repackaged to target and be palatable to the wellness community.
It's gotten to the point where it is so widespread in these groups that other influencers and businesses have felt the need to give comment about it:
While I appreciate the core tenants of spiritualism, as well as keeping an open mind to the truths around you, it seems counter-intuitive to accept a "truth" that rejects all other truths. If you're able to derive meaning from an Insta or TikTok tarot reading, then here's hoping you can learn to derive reading from actual medical research and preachings from true field experts.
Teachers Are At Risk
We've all had that one out-there teacher who was the champion of the insane. My personal favorite was my high school physics teacher, who had the genius idea of building a hot air balloon that could lift himself off the ground as a class project. Unfortunately, the administration caught on to his idea and made him scale it down to a bowling ball.
However, that kind of unhinged teacher seems to be more of a danger in today's age, albeit more of an existential danger rather than a physical danger to themselves. (Seriously, the guy cracked a rib by letting our starting linebacker tackle him at full speed to teach a lesson on force; I loved that guy.)
A video of an English professor at Mesa Community College in Arizona was leaked online by a student, where he went on a 14-minute rant touting QAnon to his class. He was thankfully subsequently fired, as baseless and dangerous conspiracy theories are rightfully considered more dangerous than a hot air balloon made by a bunch of teenagers. But this English professor wasn't alone; this is happening all across the country. A Virginia middle school social studies teacher was put on leave after he went on a huge rant calling the attempted coup "a setup," that the protesters were peaceful, and it was the Black Lives Matter protests that were out "destroying cities."
These are the people who are educating kids -- it's probably one of the most singularly dangerous places that we can let disinformation infiltrate. There's implicit trust in teachers and a given assumption for children (and a lot of adults) that things you are taught in the classroom are facts. It can be a strange catch 22 because while it's important to imprint students with the appropriate skepticism to look at the world around them and think for themselves, not just blindly put their faith into what they're being told, it almost feels like that's also the same trap that leads people to fall into conspiracies.
It really doesn't help that a third of all Americans believe that the election was fraudulent or that 86% of teachers haven't even addressed Trump and his claims about voter fraud with students. It's hard to know what you're supposed to believe when the adults in your life don't even seem to know what the truth is, and no one will even talk to you about it.
Currently, no state has ordered schools to be completely closed, and only five have ordered partial closing. This is the one in-person outlet that these incredibly impressionable youths are getting during the pandemic to even interact with other people. The level of influence that this one and only exposure will have on them can't be understated, and it's best if it isn't flooded with falsity soapboxing. I remember that the worst thing I had to deal with in high school was trying to create funny content for my Snap story. What a time to be a school kid, with the looming decline of democracy hovering over you like an unsafe hot-air balloon.
Given The Coup, We Clearly Need To Address This With The Military
It seems that the military has been incredibly disproportionately affected by misinformation. One in five of the participants who stormed the capital had a military history, which when you consider that veterans only make up 7% of the population, not 20%, it's clear how extreme the skew is. If that existential threat of misinformation wiggling its way into the minds of our youths doesn't scare you, perhaps the direct physical threat of it infiltrating our armed forces will.
The literal last thing we want is the military involved in a coup against the American government. They're literally supposed to be protecting us from insurrectionists, not being the actual goddamn invaders. Hopefully, this really underlines the threat of misinformation campaigns with a bright yellow wide-tipped highlighter. The people who create them do so with the intent of causing legitimate harm and gaining real power, and not just some angry basement Chad shitposting on a Reddit thread -- actual military power. There's evidence that people are being targeted by these campaigns because of their armed forces' involvement.
This is the weaponization of information against the American people, and it isn't necessarily a new concept. It's the evolution of warfare, in the same way that cybersecurity and artificial intelligence have become the forefront in military defense. The way we fight and the threats we face constantly change. What all this really shows is that we need to create a strategy for defending against misinformation. At the very least, we could provide some basic media literacy training for our armed forces.
Churches Are A Fertile Ground For Misinformation
This is, quite honestly, a weird one. I mean, is it really shocking that churches house conservative messaging? But while there are definitely some churches out there that are openly advocating QAnon gospel, it's weirdly the nature of how the conspiracy is told that appeals to Christian sensibilities.
People are really missing out on these integral humanizing and bridging experiences and got lost in these rabbit holes of misinformation seeking some sort of solace. With less ability to seek that out in the church, QAnon has become that beacon of comfort and respite that seems so few and far between. Once you think about it, it actually makes some sense that QAnon is filling this void of religion. Dark and terrible forces influencing the earth? A lone savior here to bring justice, who works in secret and mysterious ways? The storyline is surprisingly ... Christian. (You could have gone with Blade instead of Q, but nooo.)
A quote from Katelyn Beaty on an NPR interview really synthesizes this best:
"They're not meeting in person as much due to the coronavirus and restrictions on worship. And in that time, the pastors I spoke with sense that there is this isolation and loneliness that their members are experiencing. You know, the pastors only get one hour a week with people in their church. The people in their church are probably spending hours on Facebook, on other social media forums, taking in this information. And the pastors I spoke with just felt like they couldn't do enough to counter the false messages that some of their church members were receiving through the Internet."
So even if you wanted to do the right thing as a religious leader -- preach tolerance, forgiveness, to look out for deceivers and misleaders -- you don't really have space, time, and community to foster these connections with people and guide them away from dangerous rhetoric. It all comes back to these declining instances of quality interpersonal time as one organization, leaving people with empty distrust.
And while we definitely do live in the darkest timeline, don't give in to fear. And to those out there facilitating the spread of misinformation, here's a little biblical quote courtesy of Rob Buckingham, a pastor of Bayside Church in Melbourne: "Ephesians 4:25: So, stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbours the truth."
Top image: Sam Wordley, Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock