Mark Twain observed, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its boots on”. In the technology of his day that was true. These days a lie can lap the planet three times and develop into a full blown conspiracy theory while Truth is still tying her laces.
While we rail against social media as the root of all the evils of fake news and disinformation, this is a fundamental human problem, not a technology problem. When Gutenberg’s printing press came on the scene some of the first and hottest selling content was the 15th century version of clickbait.
All social media has done is quantumly accelerate our human tendency to fall for junk information because it is more fun than the boring truth or it confirms what we already believe.
You think it’s bad now? Wait until you see what is coming with fake videos and artificial intelligence (AI). The exposure of the activities of Putin’s Internet Research Agency and of Cambridge Anlaytica showed the playbook. Others will be doing the same. Now that those moves are exposed the nefarious types will be upping their game.
It can feel pretty hopeless until you remember that it only works if you fall for it. The good news is you can develop immunity to attempts to play you.
Decide to develop your “digital resilience” skills. In this context it refers to your ability to spot, counter and block attempts to manipulate you online. This is not a one time learn it, get the certificate thing. This is an ongoing set of habits that become second nature, like looking both ways before you cross the street.
How to Start Developing Your Digital Resilience
PLAY THIS GAME – This study showed that when people played the part of an online propaganda troll they became better at spotting attempts to manipulate them online. Here is the link to the game. It’s fun to get a group of friends to play and see who can be the best internet super villain.
READ THE ARTICLE – Deep down somewhere you know you’ve formed an opinion, felt vindication for your already held opinion or maybe even liked, commented on or shared an article based on the headline alone. We’ve all done it.
On the other side of the coin we’ve all read the article and thought, “That’s not what the headline indicated at all!” and made a comment saying so or decided not to share the article.
From now on we must all solemnly swear to actually read the article before liking, sharing or commenting.
CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS – We lose IQ points when we are angry or scared. That portion of our brain is still operating on primordial survival mode. It does not take the time to think, “Oh, that is just a picture of the politician I already hate in a threatening pose with a threatening facial on a background of colors that I interpret as dangerous with other symbols and images I perceive as dangerous photoshopped in their hand”.
No, it dumps the fight or flight cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into the blood stream and we pound our angry comment into the keyboard.
- Take several deep breaths
- Stand up and move around
- Re-read this article on the 10 Habits Of Logical Thinking
- Review the content again
Memes are one of the most powerful tools for polluting online communication with toxic emotion content. At best they convey now information, just a heavy dose of fear or anger. At worst they carry misrepresented or patently false information. Make a commitment right now to never again share or like a meme.
GO TO THE SOURCE & TRIANGULATE VERIFICATION – Have you noticed how often one news outlet is simply rehashing another’s story? And another rehashing the rehashing? It becomes one big game of telephone with fallible people overlaying their biases (either intentionally or unintentionally).
When an article says, “as reported by ____” I make sure to read the original article as well. If I find a significant discrepancy between the original article and the interpreting article I comment on latter’s social media post.
Look for independent verification from other sources. Independent verification, not articles rehashing what the original source said.
CHECK THE FACT CHECK SITES – Here are a number of fact checking sites you may want to bookmark.
WAIT 24 HOURS AFTER AN INCIDENT – One of the hotbeds for fake information are crisis events like terrorist attacks, school shootings, bombings, etc. There are people who immediately log into their online forums to strategize how they can pollute the information stream with false information. Some do it to support their ideological agendas some do it for sport.
When there is an incident I check the news to find out location and is the incident still in progress and do not click on any links speculating motive or affiliations of the perpetrators for at least 24 hours.
FOLLOW EXPERTS IN THE FIELDS – One of the great jokes on Twitter is that last week’s North Korea experts are this week’s Constitutional Law experts. Follow the actual experts on the topics of the day. And listen to them when they question a story.
For example, at the time the stories were breaking that the Parkland shooter was a member of some white supremacist group, JJ MacNab was tweeting she didn’t think this was true. The story needed more vetting. Why do we care what she thinks? Her beat is American extremism. She was on the forums where the people trying to punk the reporters were talking. A day later the news outlets that rushed to be first over right were pulling their stories. Unfortunately the damage was done. The retraction never gets as much play as the initial story.
DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS– This is the first and oldest rule of online fight club. People have been issuing this warning since back in the days when trolls were just jerks in their parents’ basements harassing people online for sport — before they were Putin’s paid cubicle dwellers.
It can still be hard to tell if an obnoxious person on social media is a paid troll or a genuinely horrible human being. It doesn’t matter. Either way their goal is to trigger you. You are under no obligation to engage with any random profile that spews vitriol on your posts.
Engaging with them causes your body to unleash the fight or flight cocktail as well as those of anyone who scrolling through their social media who stumbles across your exchange. Do your part to make the internet a better place by refusing to feed the trolls.
Do not engage. Report and block as necessary. On Facebook you can delete their comments from your post as well.
Help Truth With Her Boots
Developing your own digital resilience is a great start. Every person who yanks out a stepping stone in a lie’s lap around the world helps.
The next step is to stop the lie in its tracks.
Take the lead in online discussions. When you see fake photos or disinformation making the rounds be the one to post the link debunking the false information.
Dare to politely and kindly speak up and post the debunking information on comment threads. Or, for some people it might be best to send them a private message letting them know a story or picture has been debunked.
It can be tricky because studies have shown that, ironically being presented with evidence countering someone’s deeply held bias often actually makes them double down on their beliefs.
And sometimes people respond with, “Wow! thank you!”
And there is the consideration that even if they ignore your information that someone else will see the information you post in the comments and examine the information more closely.
As with all things human this is a messy affair. Just do the best you can and make the commitment to be a part of the solution.
More Information to Develop Your Digital Resilience:
NPR: Learning To Spot Fake News – Start With a Gut Check– A great article on specific strategies to learn to spot fake news. With a little practice these techniques quickly become second nature. If you share one of these links to your Facebook page make it this one.
Lawfare Blog: How to Read a News Story About an Investigation: Eight Tips on Who Is Saying What-“Sources say”, but what does that really mean? This article breaks down the code of how sources are referenced in news articles.
What the Heck is a Bot? – An introduction to social media bots, where they originated, what they look like behind the scenes, what they look like in your Twitter feed
Meet Putin’s Trolls – An introduction to Russian trolls, including a video of them explaining their work
Fake Video: The Latest Assault on the Truth – Start developing your digital resilience skills now because the game is about to be taken up a notch with fake video.
Debunk Fake Photos – Learn how to use Google’s reverse image search function to debunk fake photos