As I was finishing up a meal with my family at a local restaurant, three people sat down at the table next to us. One was a middle-aged man seated next to someone I assumed to be his wife. Seated across from them was a younger man, possibly their son. I’m not sure, because I didn’t ask them. There was only about 10 minutes of overlap between the time they sat down and the time we got up to leave. I wasn’t attempting to eavesdrop, but their conversation was loud enough to be heard above the general din of the restaurant. In those 10 minutes, I heard the older man go off on a bit of a tirade about our current political climate. There was one comment, in particular, that really caught my attention.
He told the younger man that Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, the women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator with stories of abuse, were actually being paid by George Soros to engage in this protest surrounding the nomination proceedings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
That statement is not true.
Now, at this point, you may be angry with me because you think the man’s claim to be based in fact, or you may agree with me that it is misinformation. As I’ve written before, I am not always right — far from it. Especially when it comes to politics, I acknowledge that I am often wrong and I need to constantly challenge my own ideas.
However, in this case, I found the truth through a fairly simple search. Let me show you the process through which I came to the conclusion that this man’s statement about Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher was actually misinformation.
I’ll begin by referring you to this article from the Washington Post that lays out all the information clearly and simply. Yes, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher are connected to the Center for Popular Democracy. Yes, that organization receives money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. He is not even the largest source of their funding, but he is a source. However, to say that these women were being paid for that protest, you have to show far more than just that he is a source of funding. Correlation does not mean causation.
Analysis | No, George Soros isn't paying Kavanaugh protesters
Maria Bartiromo, Fox Business Network: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): - "The very…
Had the man in the restaurant said that the protestors work for an organization that receives some funding from George Soros, he would have been speaking in fact. But he went a step farther to say that these protestors were being specifically paid by Soros to step into that elevator. That is patently false, as this excerpt from the article linked above explains.
The balance tips heavily toward “Soros conspiracy theory” rather than “Soros facts” in this case. There is some, indirect money from Soros associated with the groups that confronted senators in elevators, but it is wrong to claim the protesters were paid by Soros or directed by him.
I don’t know exactly what the man in the restaurant read, listened to, or watched to give him such an opinion about Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher. However, I figured I’d at least check some well-known right-wing outlets to see if they covered the subject. Sure enough, my quick internet search found articles from Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and other far-right publications that covered the fact that Soros has given large donations to the Center for Popular Democracy. I read through these articles myself. Each one used the fact that Soros had donated money to the Center for Popular Democracy as a way to say that these women were being paid to enter that elevator. But, there wasn’t any further reporting besides that. The articles simply showed the correlation, but they never drilled down to show that the women had, in fact, been directed to take the action they did. That’s because they hadn’t.
So why is this even important? It’s important, because each time we undermine truth by sharing misinformation, we lower the public conversation. The fact that this erroneous claim was widely shared and even tweeted out by President Trump gave many people reason to doubt the sincerity of these protestors. It undermined the truth of the story, and it turned the larger conversation from actual policy and the stories of abuse that these women shared to conspiracy theories and partisan jockeying.
While that may seem like a small difference, I don’t think it is. And I think it’s emblematic of a larger problem in our society — how information is shared.
How We Process Information
Much has been written about the spread of misinformation in our society. The term “fake news” gets thrown around a lot, but it goes deeper than that. This article from American Scientist (an article adapted, with permission, from Misinformation and Mass Audiences, edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson, and Laura Sheble) does a fantastic job of laying out the differences between misinformation and disinformation and showing how misinformation, specifically, can have an impact on our society.
The Persistence and Peril of Misinformation
November-December 2017 Volume 105, Number 6 Page 372 Misinformation-both deliberately promoted and accidentally…
One section of that article really stood out to me — where the authors contrast the views of philosphers Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza on how humans engage with information.
Descartes argued that a person only accepts or rejects information after considering its truth or falsehood; Spinoza argued that people accept all encountered information (or misinformation) by default and then subsequently verify or reject it through a separate process. In recent decades, empirical evidence from the research teams of Erik Asp of the University of Chicago and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University, among others, has supported Spinoza’s account: People appear to encode all new information as if it were true, even if only momentarily, and later tag the information as being either true or false, a pattern that seems consistent with the observation that mental resources for skepticism physically reside in a different part of the brain than the resources used in perceiving and encoding.
In light of this, how can we stop the spread of misinformation in our society? It has to be more than just shouting FAKE NEWS at everything we disagree with, right? I think there are actionable steps each of us can take to stem this tide and help one another stay as informed as possible.
Read More Than the Headline
I mentioned earlier how I sought out the far-right coverage of the erroneous Soros funding story to see how it might have spread. What I found interesting was that the headlines for these articles really played up the Soros connection. The rest of the article didn’t actually make the case that these women were being paid specifically for this protest, just that they work for an organization that has received money from Soros. In fact, one of the articles even had an embedded video of an interview with Archila where she explains that, yes, she works for a social justice organization but she was not paid to set foot in that elevator. However, I could definitely see how someone could quickly read the headline and jump to the conclusion that these women were being paid to protest.
Now, I’m not calling out the writers for writing a bad headline. The writer may not have even written the headline. In all reality, it was probably an editor. But I’m not even calling out the editor. In today’s news climate, especially when it comes to online publications, there is a push for headlines that grab attention. While we shouldn’t just let that slide and we should certainly call out unethical journalism, that’s not the point I’m specifically trying to make here. What I’m trying to do is focus on the steps that we as individuals can take to stem the tide of fake news and misinformation. When it comes to sensational headlines, the thought process is (whether right or wrong) that the headline will pull the reader in so that they click on the story and then read the whole thing for context.
But is that how we actually engage with news?
I’ll be the first to confess — I sometimes just skim the headline. It’s easy on Twitter or Facebook, when you follow news organizations that you trust, to simply read the headline and move on. But can we all, right now, make a commitment to do one of two things?
- Click into the story and read the whole thing for context. Or…
- If we don’t have time right then and there, refrain from talking with others about that particular story until we’ve read the whole thing.
Headlines are poor vehicles for nuance, and most of these discussions are rife with nuance. Let’s work together to make sure we’re being as careful as possible with the news we consume and then share with others.
Follow More than Just Your Echo Chamber
With social media, it can be easy to create “echo chambers.” Since we control and curate our feeds, we can simply choose to follow and engage with like-minded people.
Can we all make a commitment to stop doing this?
The reason this is a problem is that it never forces us to challenge our own views. If we’re always reading and engaging with news that we agree with, we aren’t getting the full picture.
This wasn’t an issue in the past because “news we agree with” wasn’t really even a concept. There were only a few media gatekeepers, and they were not targeting a certain partisan view or audience subset. Now, with the incredible levels of content that the internet affords, there are “news sources” for every type and creed. So, the burden falls upon us to make sure that we are getting an accurate picture of things.
The easiest thing to do — right now — on social media is to make sure that you’re following news organizations from across the political spectrum. At the end of the day, this choice is yours alone to make. You know where you draw the line on what is and isn’t a reputable news source. But I’d encourage you to make sure you at least have more than one news source you follow. I can do a better job of this too. It’s a constant work-in-progress.
But it isn’t just about the news organizations you follow. It’s about the people you follow and engage with, as well.
How many of us have been in the following scenario? You see someone who continually posts views that are contrary to yours and you unfollow them, mute them, or unfriend them. I know, I’ve been there too. In some cases, I’ll concede that it’s necessary for our own mental health to cut ties with someone that is just filling our feeds with hate or antagonistic thinking. But what if the person isn’t being belligerent but simply sharing views that are contrary to yours?
Instead of unfollowing, can we decide to let their posts become ways for us to either confirm or challenge our own views?
I had a professor in college who said that, when engaging in thoughtful debate, rather than thinking of the best arguments for your position that can refute the other, you should think of the best arguments against your position. If you can refute those, you have a much stronger argument.
When it comes to the people I follow on social media, I’ve found it to be extremely helpful to follow people with whom I disagree. My Twitter feed tends to be more liberal, but my Facebook feed tends to be more conservative. I try to be in the middle, but on any given policy, I may lean more conservative for some and more liberal for others. If I have a conservative view (take abortion, for instance) I find it very helpful to follow people on Twitter that hold a different view. When they post about their views, I try to think about why I actually disagree with them. The same is true of issues where I lean more liberal (on gun control, for instance). When I discuss these issues on Facebook, I have many people who disagree with me. I appreciate hearing their opinions, because it makes me consider mine with more nuance.
Again, there is a limit here. If there are people in your feed who are causing you stress because of how they share their opinions with hate and vitriol, there’s no reason to keep that in your life. The unfollow and mute buttons are certainly your friends on social media. But be very careful how you use them. I, for one, have found a lot of value in making sure that I continuing to engage with opposing views in my social feeds. I’d encourage you to do the same.
You are the Media
Maybe you found it odd that I compared individuals to news organizations in the last section. If so, let me double down on that.
With the prevalence of social media, you are just as much of a news source to your friends and family as Fox News or The New York Times.
A recent study which focused on the 2016 election shows just how large a role social media played in the spread of information, especially with younger audiences. The Echelon Insights study conducted for Buzzfeed shows that 33% of respondents ages 18–49 said that social media was where they most often found the news stories they read online about the 2016 presidential election. On top of that, the same study indicated that the 18–49 age group trusted news shared by friends more than they trusted news organizations.
Information about politics and current affairs shared by a friend that a respondent trusts and respects is rated trustworthy by 57%, versus just 4% who distrust it. This compares to a trust/distrust ratio of 48% to 12% for other forms of news delivery we tested. — Echelon Insights
I also appreciate a recent opinion piece by York University philosophy professor Regina Rini in The New York Times that considers how we might combat the rise of “fake news.” For instance, consider the following excerpt:
To fight fake news, we need to take the same norms that keep us (relatively) honest over cocktails, and apply them to social media. The problem, however, is that social media is like going out for drinks with your 500 closest friends, every night. You might pick up a lot of information, but in all the din you’re unlikely to remember who told you what and who you should question if the information later turns out to be wrong. There’s simply too much information for our minds to keep track of. You read a headline — and sometimes that might be all you read — and you’ll be shocked, click the angry face button, and keep scrolling. There’s always another story, another outrage. React, scroll, repeat.
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As Rini rightly points out, there are not a base set of norms that everyone follows for social media. You might share a satirical article on Facebook just because you thought it was funny. But you may have a friend who reads that and mistakenly takes it as fact. Is that completely your fault? Maybe not. But I would say that you have some responsibility to point out that what you’re sharing is satirical in nature. And certainly if you’re sharing a post that isn’t satirical in nature, you need to confirm its veracity before you share it. If the post you share is not based in fact, that spread of misinformation certainly falls on you.
My main point is this — before you share an article on Facebook, it is your job to make sure it is factual and trustworthy. That used to solely be the job of the major news organizations. That continues to be their job, but as long as we are sharing news on our social feeds, we take on some responsibility as well.
Take One Step
You may be wondering why I’ve even written this article. I am not a journalist, and I am not a media expert. My day job is in public relations and advertising, and I am also a writer whose movie reviews and other pieces have been published by various outlets. None of that makes me an expert on this topic, and I’m certainly not trying to make the case that I am in any way better than you when it comes to consuming and sharing news media. But this is a topic that is incredibly important to me as someone who is an avid user of social media and who generally tries to stay informed.
On top of that, I’ve tried to live out everything I’ve said in this article. While the contents of this post are certainly my own opinions, I have heavily researched and vetted everything you read here. I have not written this flippantly. Again, I don’t have a position that gives me credibility in this discussion. So that means I have to work for my own credibility through research and fact-checking. I have attempted to do that, but you are certainly free to investigate on your own. You should investigate on your own. That’s an extremely healthy practice.
More than anything, I want to encourage you — whether you know it or not, you have a voice. And, whether you know it or not, you are currently using that voice in some way. If you are on social media and you routinely share articles or opinions, you are acting as a news source to your friends and family. That should be a sobering realization, and one we should all take with responsibility. I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone here. We can all find ways to be better sharers of news.
The problem can look like a daunting one. What can we do in the face of the gauntlet that is fake news and misinformation? Can we really make a dent?
Yes, I firmly believe we can.
It’s all about taking small steps. Start with one step, and just keep going. When you’re at the bottom, the many steps ahead of you look impossible. But once you start taking them, you realize that the individual steps aren’t so bad.
So let’s make it easy on each other, shall we? Let’s each commit to taking one step towards healthier news consumption and sharing. I’ve put quite a bit of time into researching for this post, and I’ve certainly found ways that I can improve. At its heart, I think this process is about saying that our friends and family are important to us and we don’t want to share misinformation with them. It’s about having humility and understanding that our way of thinking needs to be challenged by other schools of thought.
So, will you take one step this week?
Will you read more than just the headline the next time you’re skimming the news?
Will you seek out news organizations from other sides of the thought spectrum to follow so you can challenge your own thinking?
Will you confirm a politically-charged story before you share it on social media?
Surely there are many more steps that you can take, but these are a few I thought might be helpful. They’ve certainly been helpful for me, and they are steps that I need to be reminded of. If you have other things that have been helpful for you, would you please share them with me? You can tweet at me or drop a response below this post. I would, sincerely, love to hear your thoughts on this important matter.
We’re in this together. Our mutual engagement with truth and information is not a lost cause. But we must work together to make sure that the system works for everyone.