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3 simple reasons we believe misinformation

We use the internet as a therapeutic, and do so at the cost of truth

*****

Last week I came across a great article in the MIT Technology Review called, “Why Generation Z Falls for Online Misinformation.” The article highlights a handful of reasons why the youngest, most savvy purveyors of internet culture become victims of misinformation themselves. The author writes:

As young people participate in more political discussions online, we can expect those who have successfully cultivated this identity-based credibility to become de facto community leaders, attracting like-minded people and steering the conversation. While that has the potential to empower marginalized groups, it also exacerbates the threat of misinformation. People united by identity will find themselves vulnerable to misleading narratives that target precisely what brings them together.

What makes the article such a good read is the sort of paradox it plumbs. The young people who make up Gen Z are supposed to be smarter about this kind of stuff than their Boomer parents or grandparents, right? How are these internet curators and trend-setters getting duped themselves?

In many of the same ways that we all can get tricked by news or other information we see online. Here are three simple ways we can all fall prey to misinformation:

1) In our whirlwind world, we inherently trust people like us.

This is highlighted in the MIT article I cite above. With faster, more pervasive communication and information transfer today than ever before in history, sifting through all of the data, news, commentary, and all the rest of the content we come into contact with on any given day can feel truly, and terrifyingly, overwhelming. It’s like we constantly exist within a hurricane of information, hot takes, and content somewhere in between. We aren’t meant to drink in all of the content we consume. As Neil Postman wrote in 1985, “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television…causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken?”

When we become overwhelmed by the content glut to which we are helplessly addicted our discernment is fractured and we begin to rely on less-than-reliable rationales for trusting people on the internet.

Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of truth of a proposition.” He was bemoaning this sad reality, not endorsing it, and it has perhaps never been more true (like so much of what Postman wrote in Amusing). As Jennifer Neda John wrote for MIT Technology Review:

As young people participate in more political discussions online, we can expect those who have successfully cultivated this identity-based credibility to become de facto community leaders, attracting like-minded people and steering the conversation. While that has the potential to empower marginalized groups, it also exacerbates the threat of misinformation. People united by identity will find themselves vulnerable to misleading narratives that target precisely what brings them together.

When we have bound ourselves to constant content consumption we create a situation in which we are easily overwhelmed with information and opinions—this sense of overwhelm is scary and real and it reduces our standards of discernment and leaves us vulnerable to being led astray by people who look like us, live like us, or believe like us.

2) We consume content too quickly to fact-check sources.

This idea is pretty straightforward, but it is perhaps the most common and endemic to social media. As Ms. John writes in that same MIT article:

[An] election rumor appeared among dozens of other posts in teenagers’ TikTok feeds, leaving them with little time to think critically about each claim. Any efforts to challenge the rumor were relegated to the comments.

The whole idea of most social media platforms, especially quick-hit ones like TikTok or Instagram Stories, is to consume lots of short content for as long as possible. YouTube’s strategy tends to be built around keeping you on the platform to watch longer-form, minutes-long content. TikTok and other platforms deliver you content that is largely less than a minute long as quick bites to be consumed in large quantities.

Let’s explore a hypothetical scenario. My wife and I have just finished dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, and are scrolling our phones while watching Netflix like any other self-respecting 30-year-old couple. I come across a TikTok that, in 45 seconds, explains why the moon landing may have been faked. I am intrigued so I tap over to the user’s profile and watch other videos he or she have created around other conspiracy theories—one on how LBJ actually had JFK killed, one on aliens, one on people disappearing near caves around the U.S. I’ve just trained the TikTok algorithm that conspiratorial content is of interest to me, and now I’m likely to get more.

I flip back over to my For You Page. I see a funny video of a dog chasing a pet hamster around a living room obstacle course. I favorite a mac-and-cheese casserole recipe to try making next week. Then I see a video suggesting the American education system is designed to undermine rural children’s education to encourage them to stay on the farm and not go to college. Interesting. I swipe up again to see a highlight from last night’s Cubs game. I swipe again and hear a creepy voice explaining the secret family of Adolf Hitler, asking rhetorical questions designed to make one wonder about if Hitler’s family still has some sort of power today. Only three minutes have passed since I began scrolling.

The seemingly random smattering of content that I consume in fewer than 200 seconds has left me no real margin to investigate the weird ideas that wiggled their way into my feed unless I decide to do a deep dive into Wikipedia or Google and investigate those claims. “Nah,” I think, “I’m scrolling to be entertained, not educated,” and I’ll always kinda wonder if Hitler’s family is secretly running some multinational dark government. Not really, but this is a general idea of this concept: many of the most popular social media apps in the world are designed for mass consumption of micro content in a short period of time, and this inhibits our ability to discern what is true or real.

3) Our relationship with the internet is meant to be therapeutic at the cost of being realistic.

Though it often fails us in this regard, many of us come to the internet, and social media specifically, to feel good. We come to the internet to laugh at humorous content, cry at touching content, or otherwise be entertained and made to feel good. It should be noted that the most popular internet platforms in the world—Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google, Tiktok, etc.—know that our primary motivation to engage with the internet is to be made to feel good, even if maybe we don’t recognize it or wouldn’t admit it. Because these platforms know that we log on to the internet to feel good or otherwise have our needs fulfilled, they have designed their experiences to reinforce these feelings and make us feel good. When they make us feel good, we spend more time on their platforms.

Because our primary value when using the internet is to feel good, any value that clashes with this value will lose, and the clash will affect how we use the internet moving forward. If we use the internet to feel good, but our daily interactions with people on Facebook make us feel bad, then we will likely stop using Facebook. If we use the internet to feel good, but we can never find a show we want to watch on Hulu, we may unsubscribe from Hulu.

It follows, then, that if we use the internet to feel good, and the news we consume about the world makes us feel bad, we will either: a) stop consuming news altogether, or b) consume “news” or other facts that make us feel good whether or not they are real.

We use the internet as a therapeutic at the cost of truth.

Because of our therapeutic abuse of the internet, that which makes us feel good will always take precedence over that which is true.

Christians are as guilty of finding their joy and their comfort in the internet as anyone else. To think we as a community of faith are somehow “above” this particular kind of brokenness is foolish.

False until proven true

Foundational to preventing ourselves from being tricked into believing and sharing that which is not true is not letting our engagement with the internet have the central role in our lives that it so often does. We should consume (and create) less internet content. We should not see the internet as a means of feeling better about our lives.

Let me share what has helped me as I have spent the last six months auditing my relationship with the internet. As I have worked to live a more offline life, the most effective tool for me has been setting time limits for my favorite apps and limiting the times of day I can engage with these apps. When I restrict the duration and times of day I engage with content on the internet, I spend a lot less time looking at my screens and a lot more time looking at the world around me.

This has helped me realize that the digital world is secondary to the physical world.

Likewise, and this may sound a bit negative, but I just have sort of come to assume anything I read on the internet needs to be confirmed by multiple, diverse outlets before I consider it “true.” I think if we just go into our relationship with the internet with the understanding that much of what we see or hear or read is actually “false until proven true” then we may go a long way toward not being duped into believing untruths.

This originally appeared in Chris Martin’s “terms of service” Jul. 12, 2021 blog/newsletter and is reprinted with permission.  “Terms of service” looks at the social internet from a Christian perspective and comes in both a free and paid subscription, either of which you can sign up for at www.termsofservice.social.


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