|Photo from @BlairReeves|
A disturbing trend is developing. More and more people are getting misinformation on the internet by hyperpartisan news agencies that are shared on social media sites. Many of these sites peddle out baseless conspiracy theories mixed with half-truths or claims that are in some cases outright lies. They're basically click bait, geared towards appealing to emotion and confirmation biases rather than objective journalism based on facts and honest reporting.
And people gobble them right up. As BuzzFeed recently reported, "the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook — far more than the three large mainstream political news pages analyzed for comparison." I deal with Right wing conspiracy theories in debates online all the time and I can't tell you how annoying it is. The Left is not immune to this either. Far from making us smarter and more knowledgeable, the internet seems to be having the exact opposite effect: it's making us less informed, more biased, and more partisan. Facts don't matter anymore. Any piece of data that doesn't confirm your already existing beliefs or that doesn't make you comfortable is just tossed aside in favor of one that does. And because sites like Facebook use algorithms that feed you what you've already liked, you're less and less likely to even see anything that you might disagree with.
So what, if anything, can we do about this? Well, I actually don't know, but I can offer two possible answers.
First, we can help flood the internet with well researched, fact based information that can debunk the lies that are out there. This should ideally be done by a non-partisan organization dedicated to honest, fact-based research that's not associated with any high profile or partisan people, because if they are, they're more likely to be dismissed outright. In psychology, the framing effect is a cognitive bias whereby people tend to immediately dismiss something if it's associated with a person or thing they do not like. I once linked someone I was having an online debate with to an article about Donald Trump being put on an allowance after one of his well known bankruptcies and he dismissed it outright because it was from Mother Jones. We need to take that into account when we debunk lies on the internet. Some people will go so far as to not trust anything that comes out of any mainstream media source, and will trust the "alternative news" sites instead, even though most of the time they're garbage.
Second, we can pro-actively mingle with people who share different views from us. Have friends that disagree with you on politics, religion, economics, and social issues. Don't retreat into the echo chamber where everyone thinks just like you. It's only going to reinforce your own biases (and we all have them). There are many people for whom I'm their token liberal friend, or I'm their token atheist friend. Put me in a room with 5 people who disagree with me on politics and religion and I'm happy. Hopefully, by becoming exposed to other people's views our bubbles will burst, and we'll be more likely to consider other views, or at least understand opposing views better, and that could result in us better understanding the issues. When people found out that one of their friends or relatives was gay, it tended to make people more understanding of homosexuality. Having friends of other political views might have the same effect.
Now this all might be a pipe dream, but at least it's something. We have to find solutions to this problem.