A Simple Guide to Understanding the Threat of Disinformation

Joe Duncan

The parable of the neighbor and the abuser next door.

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Disinformation is a toxin. It’s a form of pollution that degrades our society and hinders its proper functioning. Bad information is akin to having a bunk college degree that institutions don’t recognize in the information age. Like going to a non-accredited school, sure, you’ll learn some things. Still, that information won’t be transferrable or recognized by other institutions, questioning the value of the information in the first place. If your degree can’t be transferred or applied in life because the information used to get there wasn’t on par with the rest of the world, safe to say this is a horrible thing.

Right now, we live in a world of disinformation. Everything seems to be falling apart. There are digital snake-oil salesmen on every corner of the internet, YouTube personalities that promise instant weight loss and lean abs with zero effort or dietary changes necessary; people are promising to make you into the next musical superstar if you’ll pay a few thousand dollars and take their course, even if the information contained therein won’t help you advance your career any.

The Culture of Widespread Lies

Marketing is the new gospel. These lies we’re fed all portend to do one thing: keep us from having to face the brutal facts of life while offering us a more leisurely, softer, more gentle path. After all, a comforting lie is easier for many people than a hard truth.

Add technology into the mix, and this process becomes rapid-fire. People now believe things on a whim and take them to heart. Once these beliefs are formed, they’re sometimes almost impossible to unlearn.

Our society has paid zero respect to information quality thus far, and it’s time we take it seriously. Think about it, when you have a question and need an answer, what do you do? If you’re like most people in the technologically advanced world, you turn to Google. But Google page ranking doesn’t factor in truthfulness and the quality of the information provided. Google, and other search engines, are tools to find websites, not correct information.

The United States just got over the presidency that set the example as the motherload of disinformation. We had a president who lied with virtually every breath he could spew from his mouth. Websites and news organizations went off the deep end, regurgitating those lies. And before we knew it, we’re now entering the post-truth age.

All of this calls into question the integrity of the information we have at hand. People form beliefs based on the information they have; they take action based on their information. And as we’ll see, wrong information can lead to destructive consequences.

Beliefs Influence Actions

When the rioters stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, 2021, they were operating on a set of beliefs that influenced their actions. Stop and think about this for a minute. Some have argued that Trump tried to steal the election every step of the way from Joe Biden, and when those efforts failed, he prodded his supporters to invalidate the legitimate results.

But what would’ve been the appropriate response had he succeeded? What if Trump had succeeded in stealing the election from Biden? Certainly, storming the Capitol and igniting an insurrection isn’t in the realm of practical actions to take, but wouldn’t widespread non-violent civil disobedience be an appropriate measure? I think it would be. After all, we’re talking about a literal takeover of the United States government here.

And that’s why The Big Lie, the lie that Trump told and Fox News echoed, is so utterly dangerous. Because it was the soil from which the insurrection sprang.

And free speech advocates have fought to save our right to freely and abundantly distribute disinformation at warp speed. It falls perfectly in line with our constitution. But I fear that now is when the two worlds will collide more and more, thanks to the ease that technologies have allowed us to spread false rumors and bogus falsity.

The Parable of the Neighbor and the Abuser Next Door

Suppose you move into a nice quiet neighborhood, the house of your dreams, and you’re ready to enjoy a more subdued life. Things are going well for you economically, and somehow, you managed to weather the storm and come out of the COVID-19 catastrophe doing better than others.

Let’s say I’m your neighbor next door. We meet for the first time, and I get a bad vibe from you. Something is off, but I don’t say anything to you about it.

We shake hands and part ways, and I return to my home.

But the very next day, you awake to find a plastic yard sign in your front yard. I’ve had them printed! It has your picture, and it says, “The person who lives here is a child abuser.”

Great. This is grim. This is ominous. This is not fine.

Frustrated, you go back inside and get dressed, knowing with absolute certainty that you’re not a child abuser and knowing how damaging this can be to your reputation and your brand new life in your brand-new neighborhood.

Once you’re finally dressed for company, you head outside and start making your way down the sidewalk to come to my property to ask me about it. That’s when you see the paper signs. I’ve plastered pieces of paper with the same picture and your address that says the person who lives at your house is a child abuser.

You shuffled past the daggered eyes and deep stares. You start to feel insecure and a bit anxious as you see the endless rows of telephone poles all stamped with little white pieces of paper with your picture on them, all with your address and the false information about you being a child abuser.

A group of upset neighbors confronts you. One of them tells you his wife is currently looking through the sex offender registry for your name and information. He mentions he suspects you’re on there but that you’ve moved in under a false name!

Before you know it, everyone is looking at you strangely. I’ve swayed the neighbors. They now believe the rumor I’ve spread, at least some of them.

When you reach my house, I’m not there. I won’t return for comment. You take the loss and go to work for the day. You tell everyone at work what happened, and they say they’re so sorry. They apologize for what your horrible neighbor has done to you, smearing your reputation. But in the back of their minds and in the chatter that transpires in the break room when you’re not around, they ask themselves, “Is there any truth to all of this? Is there something we don’t know?”

The seeds of skepticism have been planted. The reasonable doubt that people will levy against your up-until-now impeccable character has been forged.

When you return home that night from a long, exhausting day, you come to find out there’s a crowd gathered outside of your house. The area around your house has been vandalized. Spray paint decorates signs in front of your home, but not your place. It’s in the public space right before your house. CHILD ABUSER, it reads in big, bold lettering.

Finally, you’ve had enough. You call the police from your cell phone and notify your family not to come home that there’s an angry mob who’s been worked up into a frenzy. They want some good ole fashion American vigilante justice.

You meet the police some distance away from your neighborhood to ensure safe communications. You explain that I, your neighbor, had it out for you from the beginning! I plastered signs in your yard. I posted pieces of paper on the telephone poles in the surrounding neighbors. You open your phone to find that I’d been spreading messages about you being a child abuser on Facebook.

Frustrated, you tell the officer, “I can’t believe this. What’s going to happen to my reputation? I’m going to be destroyed. My family will never be safe.”

The officer then informs you that he’s sorry for the pain you’ve experienced, but, honestly, nothing wrong happened here. No crime has taken place. They go on to explain that I, your not-so-nice new neighbor, was exercising my unbridled right to free speech, enshrined by the constitution.

They tell you to have a nice night and leave you hanging.

You walk away and escort your family to your new home. Everyone’s inside, but your very security has been threatened. You no longer feel safe in your own home or your neighborhood. All because someone had a plan and the means to spread radically untrue disinformation about you.

Back to Real Life

While this parable might sound pretty far-fetched, it’s quite close to the world we live in right now — it’s what we’ve created. Stop and think about it. Is there much difference between the characters in this story and the QAnon movement, a movement of people who believe that there is a ring of child abusers out there abusing children? Such figures include Tom Hanks and people like Hillary Clinton, someone who’s been on the receiving end of a whopping number of rumors like these.

How did this movement get so out of control?

And for a decade and a half, we had social media sites that decided to allow people to broadcast those rumors in a way that the abusive neighbor could’ve only dreamed of. Signs and posters can only do so much. But a tweet or a Facebook post can get around the entire world in a matter of minutes.

We flippantly talk about this problem as if it’s just some crazies who can’t do much damage. But is that accurate? And how can we create a world that respects the quality of information?

Fortunately, we already have examples. The digital space is like any other space, except it’s online instead of in the world. If we can pollute water and be held accountable when we do, isn’t it safe to say that we can envision a world where those who pollute the information space experience some form of consequences?

And similarly, our American legal structure makes exceptions for bona fide accidents in some cases. When someone gets it wrong, they admit they got it wrong and are let off or given a light sentence. Can we not make these exceptions for the pollution of information? We can. And we should.

There’s a lot of a gray area between the rampant spreading of disinformation and thought police. I’m not saying there should be criminal penalties for lying.

But I don’t have to know what the correct answer is to understand what the wrong one is. I might not be able to tell you why an airplane is about to crash, but I can tell you when it’s about to crash as it screams at warp speed in a nosedive toward the ocean. And that’s the information space we inhabit now. We’re about to crash as we frolic through the digital meadows, oblivious to the oncoming information apocalypse that’s about to take place unless we do something.

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Orlando, FL
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