The crises confronting America have spawned their own information ecosystems as a nation scrambles online to learn the latest on street protests and coronavirus. But the defect of these light-speed communications poses its own peril.
Now more than any time in history, bad information — some intentionally planted — can reach millions of minds instantly.
Some information is truly invaluable. But anyone logging in to get a sense of real-world events must verify what they see. Appearances deceive, and image manipulation is a constant threat. A consumer must put in work to stay informed with accurate facts. This means looking for trustworthy reporting to verify social-media claims. Valuable guidance on how to vet information is available via the Center for an Informed Public, which is a joint project by the University of Washington and Washington State University, and the Calling Bullshit website by two UW professors.
People aggrieved enough to exercise their constitutional freedom of assembly have benefited greatly from the ability to publicly organize, encourage safe behavior and coordinate resources via Facebook in Seattle and across the nation. Videos streamed there and on Twitter and Instagram, like the live-activity map on Snapchat, have conveyed information from the front lines in real time.
Participants have learned which areas are crowded or where conditions have grown unsafe, as have authorities. Even more crucially, the nation has been able to watch events unfold from an unmoderated perspective, and people have demanded accountability in real time.
However, the real-time spread of information has also inflamed people under false pretense. In Snohomish; Klamath Falls, Oregon; and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, people carrying guns turned out on streets ostensibly to guard against supposedly inbound “antifa” mobs that never materialized.
This is dangerous territory, as the recent past shows. An onslaught of Russian-generated social-media falsehoods inflamed the country leading up to the 2016 election. The internet’s power to disrupt the American psyche has only grown as more Americans log on and stay there. The vast reach of social-media gives hoaxes a perfect — and barely regulated — vector.
“What you need for these kinds of messages is for someone to go in and debunk it,” said Jevin West, a UW Information School professor and director of the Center for an Informed Public, “But you can’t do it at the scale at which they’re posted.”
West and his colleagues are conducting urgently needed research to help regulators and social-media platforms come together to tame this Wild West of information without impinging on free speech. That long-term goal can’t happen soon enough to create trustable communication about COVID-19 treatments or antifa. Falsehoods about each emanate from the White House and malefactors worldwide.
In this era of national tumult, every social-media consumer should seek confirmation from well-vetted information sources before acting on — or amplifying — the images or bulletins drifting across their screens. Verify, then trust.