In the misinformation age, truth depends on you

Opinion

By GEORGIA BEARD

When relatives visit for the weekend, we all struggle to sidestep controversy. It starts off purposefully civil – cousins bond over board games, parents brew tea for in-laws and the dining table becomes a peaceful middle ground.

Then someone’s contentious uncle says, “Listen to this!” and spews a garbage-load of misinformation he read in a Facebook conspiracy group. In the subsequent riot of opinion, peace crumbles.

Who’s to blame for inciting such conflict? Many condemn Facebook’s failure to remove misleading posts. However, in a virtual society accused of facilitating lies, the users who spread them without question are guilty.

In 2018, a Science Magazine study proved fake news on Twitter spreads faster and further than the truth. Scientists found users were 70 per cent more likely to retweet falsehoods than truths, which took six times longer than falsehoods to reach 1500 people.

Clearly, the humans circulating these posts aren’t fact-checking before they hit share. If they are, they flout the fabrications they uncover. Nothing matters except forcing an agenda.

 

And as Newton contended, for every force, one equal and opposite will rise to meet it.

 

Sometimes, well-informed listeners rush to uncloud the truth behind the distortion. Others believe the distortion in a fog of careless naivety. Either way, choosing to propagate misinformation is ruinous. It distorts the roots of understanding between two people.

 

This instability thrived during recent Black Lives Matter protests. Days after a Minneapolis Police Department officer killed George Floyd, a Twitter user shared this video of a black-clad man shattering windows during a protest. Falsely labelling him an ‘undercover cop’, the tweet received 147,000 likes and almost 82,000 shares.

 

Such a post always emits a cacophony of warring claims. Between demands for proof and blind acceptance, other users seize the misinformation and embellish it with extra lies. Of course, he’s not an undercover cop, he’s an anarchist from Antifa. No, he doesn’t belong to Antifa, he’s a reporter from a news network.

 

Predictably, these claims are put forward with dubious evidence or none at all. Users rely on the plausibility of their assumptions alone, and others seem to recognise it. Because conspiracy theories are probably true, right?

 

It depends on what you consider a conspiracy. Minneapolis police later confirmed the man had connections to white supremacist groups, and likely participated in rioting to fuel racial tensions.

 

But what difference does the truth make? The moment a lie appears online, users devour it like crows on a rotten carcass and regurgitate it into the mouths of people they know.

 

To break this feast, we must learn to abstain. Second guess the information you read. Demand evidence to support unfounded claims. Pursue the truth through fact-checking sites. If all else fails, don’t hit share. Your family gatherings will be better for it.

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