How to fight the onslaught of election disinformation

How to fight the onslaught of election disinformation
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The allegations were flying in Tuesday night’s presidential debates, forcing the fact-checkers to work deep into the night. Defending his administration’s response to COVID-19, President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE said, “no matter what you say to them, they give you bad press. It’s just fake news.” Not only is truth seemingly up for grabs, but the media itself, which in a democracy is supposed to help filter out fake news, is subject to attack. But everyday Americans can fight back against the steady onslaught of disinformation.

There is a growing sentiment, bordering on resignation, that disinformation will play a role in this November’s election, as it did in 2016. Then, Russian interference was substantial, as a recent bipartisan Senate report on election meddling established. It was designed to stoke animosity and fear, create distrust of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE, support the election of Donald Trump, and undermine faith in democracy itself. 

Today, as FBI Director Chris Wray said in recent congressional testimony, Russian aggression includes efforts to “sow divisiveness and discord…primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden.” Much of this activity took place, and continues to take place, on social media. Since social media puts the power to share information in everyone’s hands, though, it also democratizes the power to stop fake news.


While social media is a new medium where such activity can take place, this type of meddling designed to sow discord and distrust is not. Indeed, it’s hard to blame social media alone for the spread of fake news. Like with other forms of communication, social media, in the words of Microsoft’s Brad Smith, can be a tool or a weapon

Over the course of American history, other forms of communication have been used to spread fake news, but also to promote human rights, trust and cooperation. As the printing press proliferated in late colonial America, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other rebel printers united the colonies, but also stoked fears of a massive British military invasion of America to help raise an army in response. Later, a new, steam-powered printing press supercharged the abolitionist movement in the 1830s to combat slavery. With the spread of both investigative and tabloid journalism in the late 19th century, muckraking helped inform the public of public corruption, while fabricated news stories of Spanish atrocities helped fuel support in the United States for the Spanish-American War. 

The radio also could be a tool or a weapon. It was through the radio that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted economic recovery and the New Deal, and the late John LewisJohn LewisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category MORE, as a young man, would hear the call to the fight for civil rights from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  Still, the Nazis ensured that, in order to be able to beam their invective into every home, Germans could purchase inexpensive radio receivers so that most households could afford one. 

While social media companies have announced some measures to try to combat efforts to sow discord and distrust, and have blocked posts spreading disinformation about the coronavirus and voting, there are also approaches that individuals in their consumption and use of information can utilize to halt the spread of fake news and preserve confidence in our institutions.

At their center, concerns about fake news and the manipulation of the public through various media have their root in, and have an impact on, trust. Millenia of experience in human cooperation and research into how we develop trust have proven that there is an important mechanism that can help build trust and trustworthiness. Ironically perhaps, it is communication itself, but a particular type of communication, often one centered around cooperation and trustworthiness.

Indeed, communication designed to foster trust and trustworthiness can enhance trust. Research shows that when individuals are paired up and are encouraged to communicate, particularly about the ways in which they are going to cooperate, this leads to more trusting behavior. What is more, when people are asked to commit to being trustworthy, they often are. One study showed that there was less cheating on a test when students committed to adhering to their school’s honor code: even when no such honor code existed.

This type of communication also helps to overcome a different meaning of the term “social distance.” This term does not only reflect physical distance; it can also convey the idea that perceived differences between people can lead to mistrust. Making matters worse, when we are more likely to trust people in our inner circle, those we perceive as most like us, we can veer into groupthink. What social-media-fueled disinformation feeds off of is this tendency. Sharing information – true or not – within a tight circle is only likely to solidify our beliefs, even in fake news.

But we can overcome social distance and groupthink by engaging with others beyond our immediate circle of friends. A recent discussion, hosted by NPR and Story Corps, helped highlight the tough conversations we may need to have to help break through divisions, overcome our differences, and find common ground. Such conversations can also help overcome fake news. 

Indeed, we can fact-check information we come across with people who are not in our immediate circle, those who may not think exactly like we do. One group of researchers called this phenomenon the “Emperor’s Dilemma”; if we come across information we might be inclined to believe, we can rely on those with whom we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye to help us fact check it with us. Whether it is a work colleague with different political views, a family member, or friend from high school, we can seek out people who see the world differently to help us see more clearly. This type of communication can also foster longer-term relationships of trust with those individuals for mutually beneficial ends. If I enlist your assistance to help disabuse me of a flawed belief today, there’s more of a chance you will turn to me and I’ll be able to do the same for you tomorrow.

The measures that social media companies are deploying are just some of the steps that these outlets can take to halt the proliferation of fake news. But given the nature of the medium, where individual users are an integral part of the spread of information, such users also have a role to play in such efforts. Using this media in ways that can build trust and foster cooperation, even across difference and distance, is one critical tool that everyone can utilize to help combat the spread, and effects, of fake news.

Ray Brescia is a professor of law at Albany Law School and the author of “The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions.”