Discerning the Facts

There is a concerted effort to manipulate our understanding of reality. The news stories we read, and even the photos we’re shown online, may be retouched, slanted, or outright lies. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that in 2020, especially with the impeachment proceedings and the national election, doing the work of determining what are the facts, and then sharing that information with others, is a task we must commit ourselves to doing.

The internet is the fastest way of sharing misinformation, but it also provides tools for finding out the truth of a matter.

First, I recommend getting some recent education about how we are being manipulated. This article in Rolling Stone magazine explains that many of the manipulators — often Russian “trolls” — are playing a long game. It’s astounding! A heartwarming story is sent out on social media, that then “goes viral,” getting shared by hundeds or thousands of people. A relationship, of sorts, has now been created. “Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.” Once that connection is made, it can then be exploited. “The Russians know that, in political warfare, disgust is a more powerful tool than anger. Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart.”
That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It

Russian (and other) trolls are actually real people, hired to pretend to be someone else, but we also have “bots” — “artificial-intelligence-driven text generation and social-media chatbots” — to contend with. These bots can target the comments section of news articles and online conversations in order to waste our time, and give impressions by the volume of similar comments that many people hold a similar opinion. “They will be replicated in the millions and engage on the issues around the clock, sending billions of messages, long and short. Putting all this together, they’ll be able to drown out any actual debate on the internet. Not just on social media, but everywhere there’s commentary.”
Bots Are Destroying Political Discourse As We Know It

Alarmed? Well, good. I think we need to develop a healthy mistrust of what we read and see online. Here are some of the tools and suggestions that can help us do our own detective work:

First: learn how to Recognize a Fake News Story
Then: make technology work for you by doing a “reverse image search” on photos that you see: How to use your phone to spot fake images surrounding the U.S.-Iran conflict

In the end, though, the article in The Atlantic about bots says it best: “We have to recognize the limitations of online political conversation, and again prioritize face-to-face interactions.”