By Linda Fisher Thornton
Global unrest is being fueled by widespread misinformation campaigns. Who’s fueling these campaigns? The bad actors who are creating misinformation? Or the platforms who intentionally or unintentionally share false information for profit? Or the people who believe the disinformation they read and incite violence? Or the leaders who fail to recognize the clear and present danger of the disinformation machine? Or the leaders who do recognize the danger and turn away, doing nothing? Together, all of these are fueling the disinformation machine in a systemic self-reinforcing loop.
The disinformation machine is not a vague future threat. We have all been impacted now in some way by people who do not believe the truth about what is happening in the world. Everyone knows someone in their extended family or friends or colleagues who is being victimized and manipulated by it. And the resulting decisions that these victims make are at best dangerous and at worst deadly.
Why are people spreading disinformation?
PAWN – Victims trusting untrustworthy sources and unwittingly doing the bidding of unethical actors because they are being told it is “right.”
POWER – Unethical leaders and lawbreakers lying to increase their sense of power when they feel that power is threatened.
PARTY – Members of a political party seeking absolute power instead of ethically serving the people to create a more perfect union.
MONEY – Clickbait farms, unethical social media firms, and unethical software engineers seeking views, clicks and content engagement with little regard for the impact on people and society.
CONTROL – Unethical actors controlling what people think and do in order to feel more powerful (See also Power).
CHAOS – Unethical actors intentionally creating chaos and unrest and encouraging irresponsible and illegal actions to divert attention or feel more powerful (See also Power)
Not one of these motives is ethical. Disinformation spreaders prey on our weaknesses as humans – our tendency to need simple explanations for complex problems, our desire to feel safe when we are fearful, and our desire for power and unlimited freedom without responsibility. None of these weaknesses represent our best as humans. They represent taking the least responsible, easiest way out. When these human weaknesses and failures are fueled by misinformation, lawbreakers feel empowered or even supported in taking illegal and harmful actions. All of this is a negative spiral that is resulting in chaos and loss of life.
Pawns in the game have fallen victim to the current version of the snake oil salesman that used to go from town to town in the old west. The “miracle” elixir they pedaled was fake. The only way they could be stopped was for the communities to share information with each other about the scam so that others would not be tricked. There are people working together now to do that to reduce the power and spread of disinformation.
Why are people working to stop the spread of misinformation?
SUPPORT THE GREATER GOOD
Amplifying unethical messages is just as unethical as creating them, and perhaps even more so. It’s against the law to yell “fire” in a crowded theater for a reason – because it leads to a dangerous stampede causing people to get injured as they try to escape. Amplifying untruths is even more dangerous than yelling “fire” in a crowded theater because it impacts all of us around the world, not just the people in that one theater. More people are harmed, on a global scale.
What is being done to stop the spread?
UPDATING LAWS/INCREASING ACCOUNTABILITY
- Poyntner shares a map of governments around the world enacting legislation to stop misinformation
PROVIDING TOOLS FOR THE PUBLIC
- Shareverified.com (Collaboration between The United Nations and Purpose) offers articles and a free course on fighting misinformation
- The American Psychological Association shares research on what makes us susceptible to false information
- Four Ways to Stop the Spread of Misinformation, Notre Dame Deloitte Center For Ethical Leadership
IMPROVING CONTENT QUALITY CONTROL
- USC shares advice about improving content quality control in your organization
- MIT shares how to shift people’s attention to accuracy
- Report misinformation to the CommonCause.org tipline
Since no one is immune to the negative impact of disinformation, it’s up to all of us to stop it from spreading. Because there are so many unethical parties involved in creating and sustaining the problem, it will take many people involved in creating and sustaining the solutions.