Why is it, as Nancy Snow has noted, "The propaganda that we so often disdain is here to stay"?
Should we care about the "firehose" of disinformation, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, "pseudo-populism," or propaganda of so many public figures and media distorting our reality?
Whether intentional or not, varieties of false information cause serious harm, including through threats or hate resulting in fear, or social divisions and chaos, incitements to violence, or damage to reputation, along with individual and public fraud in financial, health, or electoral decision-making. And the cover-up of corrupt practices or behavior in institutions can especially harm individuals within or outside the institution. It should matter greatly to each of us whether our community leaders, especially legislators and the judiciary, ensure our well-being in these matters.
More than ever now, what individual voters say and do to demand accountability matters. In Montesquieu's view, the durability of free government depends on a nation's capacity for self-correction (Gabis, p. 146). But what can we really do about the ever-present flood of false information?
Apart from some efforts in European Union countries, mostly policymakers either move too slowly to counter false information or just exploit its spread and impact. As individual citizens, we are largely on our own to tackle the harm caused.
Some ways for individuals or groups of citizens to understand and tackle false information are outlined in a relatively recent paper published in European Psychologist (Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter). The authors acknowledge "the diversity in definitions of 'misinformation,' 'malinformation,' 'disinformation,' 'fake news,' 'false news.'" The authors use "misinformation" as an encompassing label in their discussion.
The paper is thoughtful, wide-ranging, and welcome. Its main focus is to review evidence for the effectiveness of four categories for individual intervention: boosting (psychological inoculation, critical thinking, and media/information literacy); nudging (accuracy primes and social norm nudges); debunking (fact-checking); and automatic content labeling.
Through methodical assessment of the assumptions, circumstances, and findings of research in each of these areas, the authors valuably point out upsides and downsides to intervention. Also included are observations about the limited understanding of practices "in the wild," that is, outside experimental studies. The commentary is digestible for educators, pundits, activists, or your friends, family, or neighbors–to be better equipped to make useful interventions individually or collectively.
It's refreshing to encounter the authors' quick reflection on a perspective that also contributed to the decline of Clyde R. Miller's foundational and useful education program for critical analysis of propaganda eight decades ago in the United States–namely, the failure of critics of Miller "to distinguish between healthy skepticism and dysfunctional cynicism" (Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter, p. 192).
However you choose to push back on false information, it's key to establish dialogue about the everyday concerns of people–to replace the distractions and distortions of catchwords, memes, or ideology. Individuals and groups of citizens who care to crush false information are finding ways to blunt the manufactured outrage that polarizes families, friends, and neighbors.
We can all call out and push back on such nonsense talk, replacing it with ways to address everyday concerns, like healthcare, jobs, shelter, food, safety, freedom, and making bad actors accountable. You can help counter false information by joining in these efforts or by setting up your own initiatives.
Five to seven individuals, who get together face-to-face or virtually with a common purpose of deciding how to regularly call out the nonsense of elected representatives, local media, or others, will swiftly learn how to apply what the researchers have shared. As noted in my earlier blog posts, now is the time to energize efforts analogous to what Maria Ressa outlines about her inspiring and ongoing push back against totalitarian propagandists (Ressa, pp. 253-8). Whether by starting or joining similar efforts, or by providing support in other ways, any of us can help democracy thrive.
While every page of the paper on "Countering Misinformation" is packed with clearly stated, helpful insights about addressing the ever-adapting propagandists and other "misinformers," six "Recommendations for Policymakers and Tech Companies" (at pp. 198-9) are required reading for every one of us–at the very least, to then directly and through the ballot box engage policymakers to "do something" useful soon.
Our future depends on it.
Maria Ressa (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper Collins
Nancy Snow (2019), "Propaganda," in The International Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies, April 29, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118841570.iejs0267