Yes, disinformation is a problem. But by treating it as the problem, we can cause more: We give malign actors the attention that feeds them as we spread their messages. We defer facing society’s real ills. We ignore voices too long not heard. We present a distorted and dystopian view of reality. We delay building a better internet and society.
I’ve paid attention to disinformation myself. I’ve written about it and raised money to fight it. The war against disinformation is in good hands: see danah boyd’s Data & Society, Joan Donovan’s work at Harvard, the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta et al at the Stanford Internet Observatory, Claire Wardle at First Draft, and many more.
I’ve come to see that the time has come to turn our monomaniacal media gaze to additional, more positive and perhaps productive strategies. Consider:
Ignore the trolls
Recently, Morning Joe began the day mocking “Dr.” and Trump lackey Rep. Ronny Jackson for tweeting that the Omicron COVID variant was a worldwide political plot. Joe Scarborough dutifully ridiculed the idiocy of it, and later that day Anderson Cooper did likewise. Thereby they gave Jackson precisely what he wanted: media attention and glory among his cult of anti-institutional insurgents for pwning the libs.
Have we learned nothing in the last five years? Fascists will make up shit for the sake of making shit up so they have shit to stir. As I argued here, I don’t think even they believe most of it; they want us to believe they believe it. Their outrageousness is not news; it is a strategy designed to exploit the weaknesses in journalism to report conflict and the unusual. So stop. Ask whether there is any point, any value in repeating their lies and sick fantasies. If not, say nothing. Starve them.
In this time of abundant speech — which I celebrate, as so many communities too long not heard in mass media finally have their press — the key skill we must develop is not to point out or even debunk the bad but instead we must to learn to ignore idiocy as we amplify authority and wisdom.
In 1850, just as steam-powered presses were enabling a flourishing of new publications, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine announced its intention to “place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.” That is what we need now: not services that expose us to the worst of the web and humanity but instead services that find and share their unbounded treasures, which most certainly are there: talent, expertise, diverse lived experiences that deserve to be heard. Build that, please.
Focus on society’s real ills
Underlying the moral panic about the internet and its agues is the assumption that if we could just turn off Facebook or Twitter, everything would be OK. That is to assume that society was just fine before new technologies came along. That, of course, is delusional blindness — blindness to the racism, inequity, misogyny, lack of empathy and understanding, greed, and hatred that have plagued this nation for generations and centuries.
We hide behind many excuses to place blame on others, concocting syndromes like filter bubbles and echo chambers as classic examples of third-person effect: the assumption that everyone else is vulnerable to lies and hate but not us; we’re fine. Listen, please, to Michael Bang Petersen’s research, which finds that we do maintain echo chambers in real life and the problem is that the internet busts them, exposing people who already hate to the objects of their hate. Read, too, Axel Bruns’ exhaustive compilation of research in his book, Are Filter Bubbles Real?, which points to the conclusion that they are not. Let us ground our discussion of what’s wrong with society and the interventions we create in empirical research, not assumptions.
Before you cancel me or accuse me of canceling—which is the same thing — I am, of course, not saying that all of us are in every moment racist; don’t try that excuse. I am saying that if the last half-decade of insurgency and pandemic have taught us nothing else, it is that our society is infected with structural racism and inequity as well as hostility to education and if we do not address those causes every day in our journalism, in our teaching, and in our public discussion, then we are putting off the real work to be done. And then we are all to blame.
Disinformation is real, yes. It is a tool of malign actors, true. But it is also an excuse to put off painful self-examination.
Listen to the voices of experience
And how do we embark on that work? We need to begin by listening to those voices too long not heard who can tell us all about their experience of inequity, yes, but more importantly so we may include and value their contributions to our learning and public discourse.
Last year, The New York Times crowned the heroes of COVID-19: all white men. Just today, the other Times, Rupert’s, featured data-crunchers as the “smoking-hot heroes” of the pandemic: all white men again. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Spend just 10 minutes scrolling through my Twitter list of 675 COVID experts and you will find countless women and women of color in science and medicine who are leading the war on the disease.
Right under our noses are history’s greatest tools for listening — the internet and social media — and by concentrating only on their ills and woes, we forfeit the opportunity to hear those who enrich the public conversation. I’ve harped on this before: that journalism is the conversation and when journalists turn their backs on the voices they had ignored, they only extend the harm that journalism has done to so many communities and delay the reparations deserved.
Journalism fancies itself a reflection of society but its mass-media mirror is cracked: it leaves out huge swaths of society; it presents a dark and dystopian view of the world but especially of life in those communities it fails to represent; it makes it money — just as the internet does thus far — on the corruption of attention and that colors its reality. We can build something better.
Build a better internet and society
By concentrating only on the internet’s problems, the best we can hope for is a slightly less-bad internet. Or, if we mess up by intervening based on unfounded assumptions and fears, we can end up with a worse internet and society, one where our new freedoms are impinged upon to protect old, threatened institutions, like mass media.
Instead, I want to see us take responsibility to build the internet and society we want. I’ve harped on this, too: We have time. The net is yet young. We still see its future in the analog of our past. We don’t know what it is yet. We — or more likely our grandchildren or theirs— will invent what it can be. Still, we should start now.
That is why I am teaching a course in designing the internet this spring, to convince students (actually, to have them convince themselves) that they have the power to take the net and make it theirs. This is not a technology course; it is most definitely a course in the humanities. I hope the students come up with audacious proposals for what the net can be, including ethical, moral, and regulatory regimes for what it should be. To build what they propose, we will need to shift resources and attention from exclusive attention on the net’s bad actors. That is why I write this. That is why I find myself drawn to others who want to talk not just about what’s wrong with the net but what can be built with it, by us, for us, humans.
I will continue to support efforts to battle disinformation. But we must not stop there for there is so much more to be accomplished.