Jack Shafer: “No critique of misinformation is complete without a passage detailing how journalists have, at times, been the greatest purveyors of the stuff.”

From a Politico Fourth Estate column by Jack Shafer headlined “What the White House Doesn’t Get About Disinformation”:

The Biden administration recently escalated its campaign against the death-bringing Covid misinformation that’s propagated on social media and on cable news and advanced by Republican scaremongers. Abandoning its previous, more passive strategy, the administration has wrapped its critics in a clinch and commenced counterpunching. White House press secretary Jen Psaki lectured Facebook this week for allowing false claims about Covid and vaccines to run wild on the service and announced that the White House was “flagging problematic posts” for the company’s attention….

But Biden outdid his aides with this Friday statement about Facebook. “They’re killing people,” the president said.

It’s despair-making that misinformation about Covid and other topics takes root so easily and demands constant monitoring and refutation. Misinformation—false and fake stories—has always been with us, but it didn’t really begin to flood our political debates until the 2016 presidential campaign, as Donald Trump used it on social media and TV appearances as his prime political strategy….

The new White House strategy of directing Facebook to put a crimp on misinformers might prompt a few spectacular headlines. It might persuade Facebook to throttle Covid misinformation. It might earn a few attaboys from public health types. But so far, the effort seems to be backfiring, especially among conservatives and social media users who have criticized the government for censoring Covid- and vaccine-related information it opposes.

There’s no precedent in the Internet era of the U.S. government forcibly shoving back into the bottle an idea that has escaped, so Psaki and the White House would be wise to recall their campaign and rely more on what several recent academic studies have taught us about battling misinformation. Evidence exists that suggests we can manage misinformation without resorting to direct censorship by encouraging social media users to be more mindful of accuracy when posting.

No critique of misinformation is complete without a passage detailing how journalists have, at times, been the greatest purveyors of the stuff. Reporters—and not just the ones from supermarket tabloids—have faked stories and deliberately hoodwinked readers with hoaxes. They have advanced as news various whispering campaigns alleging unproven malfeasance and conspiracies by presidents, corporate leaders and celebrities….As Brent Staples just wrote in the New York Times, until recent decades, American newspapers routinely ran scurrilous fake news about Black people, depicting them as subhuman, congenitally criminal, rapists and dope fiends….The hundred-year campaign against marijuana provides another example of the press peddling misinformation.

Traditionally, the mainstream press worked with the government, industry, labor and other leading institutions as an agent of social control, using shame, restraint and persuasion to advance a national political consensus. This gateway function began to falter in the 1960s when thinkers like Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Jacobs, the Vietnam War critics and others attacked and eroded the consensus. Dynamiting the consensus machine was a great thing, but there was an unwanted side-effect. The forces that blocked inconvenient truths had also helped control the spread of nutbaggery. As the Web and social media knocked down the gatekeepers, more inconvenient truths gained currency. But so too did the nutbaggery….

The most sobering thing about the misinformation of our age is how fast and how far it moves compared to earlier years. A 2018 MIT study shows that fake and false news (characterized as such by six well-known fact-checking organizations) spreads faster on Twitter than true stories, it’s retweeted more often, and it spreads farther. Fake news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news and people, not bots, are doing the primary spreading. The MIT researchers…attribute fake news’ superspreading powers to the novelty and excitement that sharing hogwash brings….

What’s the appeal of tweeting misinformation? “People who share novel information are seen as being in the know”…and who doesn’t like to be thought of as ahead of the curve?  The appeal of the bogus is so grand that a BuzzFeed News investigation found that in the last three months of the 2016 presidential campaign, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”…

When a user shares something, it doesn’t necessarily mean he believes it….It seems that he’s mostly trying to impress his followers and entertain them. Social media is, of course, optimized for engagement, not truth, and the impulse to be the first to tweet or retweet an item prevents many users from judging its accuracy beforehand. These findings counter the common view that we’ve entered a “post-truth” vortex in which people don’t care whether something is true or not. Most people do care, but tweet garbage anyway….

If people are sincere about wanting to share accurate information—and if nudging them toward accuracy puts them on a course to share more quality information—we might be inspired to think that the struggle against misinformation isn’t hopeless. Both Twitter and Facebook now label and suppress what they consider to be misleading messages, actually booting Trump from their services. But the labeling has only met with a modicum of success. One unintended consequence of warning labels is that some users have come to interpret messages without labels as endorsed as true by the social media outlet. Sometimes you can’t win for losing.

Instead of jawboning Facebook or accusing it of murder, the White House could consider asking, not commanding, social media companies to prod users into thinking before posting. Whatever strategies the White House ends up promoting to marginalize fake news—banning, “prebunking,” suspending, blocking, labeling, nudging, tweaking the algorithms—we’ve got to accept that there will always be a contingent who delight in writing, reading and sharing blatantly untrue material. To varying degrees, we all seem to be as attracted to the outrageously false as we are disappointed by the dullness and predictability of the true. Our psyches tend to burn brighter when stoked with the fantastic and astonishing. This can pose an insurmountable problem for reality-based journalists who learn how difficult it can be to compete with the fake stuff….

It will always take mental energy to stand up against the fake and the spurious, and nobody will ever devise a magic formula to extinguish misinformation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think before we retweet, and ask our family, friends and neighbors to do the same. The best guideline would seem to be this: If you stumble across an incendiary tweet that could easily be translated into a Day-Glo circus poster, leave it alone….

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

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