The Plague of Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation

On Christmas Day, a suicide bomber in Nashville destroyed a city block and injured eight people. While his motivation is unclear, those close to the bomber say that he’d gone down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, accepting as true some of the outrageous fabrications that zip around the internet.

Not even two weeks later a mob summoned and incited by Donald Trump, their heads full of ridiculous and dangerous theories and misinformation, stormed the US Capitol — some of them armed and looking to execute the vice president, the speaker of the house and others. The presidential election had been robbed from their candidate, they were told repeatedly, and it was up to them to set things straight.

Imagine, if you will, that a militant Islamic group had been behind both of those actions? What would have happened next? The US would already be dropping bombs on Muslim countries, warning the rest of the world that they are either with us or against us.

What if supporters of Black Lives Matter had set off a bomb in the middle of a city and then overrun the Capitol building? Federal law enforcement would be dragging BLM leaders out of their beds at gunpoint and charging them with terrorism.

There is a poison coursing through the veins of the American body politic, and it has brought the country to where it stands today: deeply divided — not just on political issues, but on a set of basic facts that determine how someone perceives the issues.

Misinformation, conspiracy theories, doctored videos, and outright lies are being ingested every day by millions of Americans. They are swallowing the bait whole and, as a result, they are filled with rage toward manufactured enemies while pledging fealty to false gods. It began with the trickle of talk radio 30 years ago; then Fox News opened the spigot in 1996. The internet has brought the flood of toxic disinformation into each of our homes, day and night, and now millions of Americans are swimming in it.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government and other bad actors are behind a significant amount of the deceitful posts, theories, memes and videos that are being shared via the internet. Those who accept this stuff and forward it without skepticism and fact-checking are aiding and abetting America’s enemies, whose aim is to destabilize this country. They’ve clearly been successful.

As we reel from scenes of violence and desecration in Washington, we need to address the factors that have caused so many people being misled so badly. First, we need to teach civics and citizenship more comprehensively in our schools. There are a whole lot of people who believe that the vice president could have thrown out the Electoral College votes or that the First Amendment applies to Twitter. A recent study showed that almost two-thirds of Americans would fail the citizenship test given to immigrants.

Second, we need to help people understand how to interpret information that is at their disposal. A story in The New York Times, for example, is infinitely more trustworthy than a video from some guy sitting in a basement and wearing a funny hat. That doesn’t mean that the mainstream media is always right or that funny-hat guy is always wrong, but the so-called “legacy media” — newspapers, magazines, TV and radio news — has levels of editing and fact-checking, especially on stories that deal with sensitive topics. None of them would risk intentionally printing lies because they could lose millions in libel lawsuits, and when they find out that reporters or columnists have played fast and loose with the truth there are immediate consequences and public corrections.

Third, social media has to be part of the solution. Government censorship scares me, and I am not advocating it, but I’d be open to some type of regulation, similar to the way that public airwaves are subject to FCC guidelines. We should proceed with caution here, but steps clearly need to be taken.

The plague that muddled the thinking of the Nashville bomber and the DC insurrectionists is not going to be cured any time soon. There is no vaccine in the pipeline that will give us herd immunity from conspiracy theories and other misinformation. Still, we have to start doing something to tamp down the spread — otherwise, our democracy could end up on life support.

Originally published in The Daily Item on January 13, 2020.

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