There has never been a time in history when we have seen such a proliferation of false information in the form of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. But why? And why now? And why so much?
There has never been a time in history when we have seen such a proliferation of false information in the form of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. But why? And why now? And why so much? And why is some either coming from or being endorsed by the 45th President of the United States as well as other world leaders?1
Unlike any other time in history, we are inundated with information from many sources of media.
Unlike any other time in history, we are inundated with information from many sources of media. And we are racing to catch up to what is reliable, dependable, and true – all the while, feeling deep, emotional, attachments to our personal understanding of important issues while trying to avoid misinformation or worse, disinformation. The use of Critical Thinking skills, guided by patience and persistence, can help us better identify, understand, and denounce false information in all its forms. Critical thinking lies at the root of all sound reasoning and provides the greatest likelihood for epistemic responsibility – that is, the ability to responsibly acquire, interpret, and act on reliably attained evidence- based information. Knowing how to become more responsible in formulating beliefs leads naturally to personal empowerment.
At this point in human history, what we can say with some confidence about the future spreading of false information is that the worldwide situation is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Now, we can only speculate about how such forms of false information will play out in the future. But one of the things we can say with some certainty is that, as long as there are complex societies, internet connections, and politics, the spreading of false information will be with us for quite some time to come.
Unfortunately, since 2016, the world has witnessed the most outspoken US Presidential conspiracy theorist: Donald Trump. The future of false information is a future filled with a variety of people in positions of power who, not through expertise, but rather characteristics like charisma, or charm, or bullshit, will become the predominant forces in spreading false information. One of the most powerful tools in recent history for allowing for the proliferation of false information is the endorsement of it by people in positions of power who simultaneously create doubt regarding the objectivity and truthfulness of mainstream media. Socrates and Plato warned against this type of demagoguery noting that when voters care more about the cult of personality than what’s best for the citizens, democracies can implode and fall into ruin. If we add to this cocktail of con-artistry some powerful developing AI technologies such as GPT-4, DALL·E 2, and Video Deep Fakes, we can envision a future in which we will need to develop reliable sources and technologies that can hopefully tell us what information is real and what is not. Stopping the spread of false information is going to become an increasingly difficult arms race and, unfortunately, stopping people from believing in it will become just as difficult.
For the sake of clarity, when discussing specific types of false information, we can define misinformation as incorrect or misleading information; disinformation as false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth; and a conspiracy theory can be defined as any belief or hypothesis that attempts to explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.
In all of my research, lectures, and books on Critical Thinking, I refer to the ABCs of Critical Thinking which refers to Arguments, Biases, and Context. Understanding that the clear presentation of ideas requires us to put our thoughts in the form of arguments – that is, stating a conclusion supported by our reasons or premises – is an important step in clearly communicating our thoughts. As well, recognizing biases – both biological and cultural – which influence our views and those of others, goes a long way towards understanding why we have such differing viewpoints. But in this paper, I want to focus mostly on context – that is, the background factors of time, place, and circumstance which lead to the proliferation of false and misleading information.
There appear to be some key markers in human history, at least in the Western hemisphere, which point to significant developments in the ways in which information was delivered. The world has witnessed the rather rapid decrease in newsprint and locally-sourced journalism which has seen so many news services lost while at the same time, we witnessed the equally rapid rise of various forms of “news services” online. For the last 50 years, we have witnessed great losses to hometown and local news coverage, the incredible loss of newsprint journalists, and the growing drive to make news entertaining. And in the last 20 years, we have watched an incredible surge in online news services which have replaced the integrity of delivering truthful information with pandering to a public who will give them more online ‘hits’ which simply translates to more revenue earned through online advertising.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when journalism began to lose its integrity. On a personal note, my earliest recollection came from a television sitcom I remember watching in the early 1970s called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In one episode, the Executive Producer of the news, Lou Grant, is trying to explain to the Station Manager, Jack Stoneham, why they should avoid making the news more entertaining and less truthful:
Lou Grant: We’re talking about news, here. News! Our job isn’t to make people laugh. It’s to let them know what’s happening! I can live with ratings. When I was an editor, I used to live with circulation numbers. But when the circulation went down, we didn’t put the comics on the front page. News is truth, Jack! And I’m not going to make it into something fake.2
This appears to be the earliest reference to so-called ‘fake news’ on American television. And that was in 1972. Since then, more and more newscasts throughout the 1970s went from singular anchors reporting the news, two dual anchors that provide witty banter and commentary about the stories they’re covering. This shift in reporting the news to commenting on the news was a crucial development in journalistic history. And it was coming largely from the United States. This fostered continuous competition amongst new services on television to ‘spruce up’ or make the reporting of news more entertaining to the general public. Form became more important than substance. And eventually, the entertainment aspect of appealing to viewers to increase ratings began to overshadow the journalistic integrity of those doing the reporting.
By the 1980s, this new model of television news reporting had taken hold. But something else was happening as well. The 80s ushered in MTV, VHS videos, big hair, Pay-TV, and 24-hour news. In Atlanta, Ted Turner had started CNN and around the clock news-casting had begun. In the decades to follow, major news outlets would be established or purchased by wealthy billionaires with very clear political leanings.
Today, about 15 billionaires and six corporations own most of the U.S. media outlets. The biggest media conglomerates in America are AT&T, Comcast, The Walt Disney Company, National Amusements (which includes Viacom Inc. and CBS), News Corp and Fox Corporation (which are both owned in part by the Murdochs), Sony, and Hearst Communications.
It should come as little surprise to witness the way such political biases influence and support both the manner in which the news is presented, and the viewers of such services. One just has to watch Fox News to experience how its owner, Rupert Murdoch – who lost a $787.5 million-dollar settlement with Dominion Voting Machines for broadcasting false claims – has created a “news service” which has spawned a new social phenomenon amongst elderly Americans: rage addiction. Although not an actual medical diagnosis, according to 14-year veteran Fox News commentator, Tobin Smith, the concept of ‘rage addiction’ follows a standard formula:
The process begins with the viewer encountering a ‘Fox News Alert’ or teaser sequence that portrays a threat or heresy from an opposing group – usually a left wing affiliation. This triggers the viewer’s amygdala – the emotional seat of the brain – to perceive danger and prepare for a fight or flight response by releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine. Next, a video featuring a prominent liberal figure insulting or mocking right-wing beliefs is shown, which intensifies the viewer’s tribal mindset. The so-called ‘tribal enemy’ stands firm and reaffirms their dissenting views with even greater authority. This staged setup resembles a choreographed wrestling match, with the right-wing host and guests metaphorically punching the tribal enemy on behalf of the viewer. As the threat-induced adrenaline rush subsides, dopamine replaces it, generating anticipation for another tribal victory. Ultimately, the viewer experiences the thrill of validation and a sense of security, leading to the release of serotonin, a chemical associated with feelings of well-being.3
And do not think that this is simply a right wing political phenomenon. News agencies which lean to the left are also guilty of such tactics – though, admittedly, not nearly as brazenly as Fox. What is very important to remember is that all humans tend to seek out information which confirms their biases while ignoring information which creates cognitive dissonance. This generates within our brains a type of addiction to information which, quite literally, gets us high. And there is no greater high in life than the feeling of being right. You don’t have to actually be factually correct. You simply just have to feel that you are right in order to receive the neural rewards.
At the same time the influence and integrity of standard news journalism was dying, the onslaught of information available online was growing exponentially. By the end of the 20th century, around 4% of the world’s population was online. Today, approximately 65% of the world is online. We can view the World Wide Web as one of the greatest advancements and liberators in communication history. Aside from the development of sophisticated human languages, and the advent of the printing press, the Internet has provided information to more people throughout the world than any other medium in the history of our existence. Think about that. In the last several decades, it has become possible for practically anyone, anywhere in the world, to connect to people and information sources at any time.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has created ‘News Deserts’ i.e. places throughout the world with only one or no local newspapers. This makes it much easier for people in positions of power to commit crimes without being caught. It also means that anything that ‘looks’ like the news can pass for news. And that’s dangerous. Because it gives people with little to no authority or experience the capacity to say whatever they want. Filling the void of a journalistic wasteland with privately run and deeply opinionated websites and so-called “influencers” is a dangerous path to misinformation and worse, disinformation. The rise of such sites has contributed significantly to the barrage of misinformation and conspiracy theories now flourishing around the world.
As the integrity of journalistic reporting was waning and social media sites were booming, another pernicious phenomenon was occurring which aided the spread of false information and fueled the false causes of conspiracists: computerized algorithms.
But what is an algorithm?
In essence, algorithms are simply a series of instructions that are followed, step by step, to do something useful or solve a problem. You could consider a cake recipe an algorithm for making a cake, for example. In computing, algorithms provide computers with a successive guide to completing actions. They’re comprised of a precise list of instructions that outline exactly how to complete a task. So, what is an algorithm? A good way to think of them is as mini instruction manuals telling computers how to complete a given task or manipulate given data.
You might have first experienced the effects of algorithms if you have ever ordered anything online. If you once made an Amazon purchase for a product – say, toothbrushes, you might eventually notice ads appearing on some of your browser pages suggesting various brands of toothpaste, or dental floss, or other products related to dental hygiene. You can thank algorithms for that.
The power of machine learning has enabled the algorithms to nudge you in specific directions according to what your profile’s interests have revealed about you. Tristan Harris, Co-Founder for The Center for Humane Technology goes so far as to say:
Even two friends who are so close to each other, who have almost the exact same set of friends, they think, you know, “I’m going to news feeds on Facebook. I’ll see the exact same set of updates.” But it’s not like that at all. They see completely different worlds because they’re based on these computers calculating what’s perfect for each of them.4
This is how the process of the Internet further influences the proliferation of misleading information online. These self-learning algorithms have created the perfect environment for conspiracy theorists to meet and further network with like-minded individuals. It is not by coincidence that, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, at anti-mask rallies you saw anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and more than a few Christians groups – who believe in God’s love over supposed science – all marching together. We have all been living under the delusion that our digital lives online are roughly the same as everyone else’s. But it is quite the opposite. And every time we search our preferred websites, we get more information which satisfies our confirmation biases, which, in turn, provide us with neural payloads in the form of raised levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. So, every time we confirm our already established biases regarding any particular subject, we feel good because we’re getting a little high. And those major social media companies producing the content know and exploit this algorithmic-neural relationship very well.
And now we face a future of even far more advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies which will be used harmfully to deliberately spread false information. With powerful Machine Learning (ML) and Large Language Models (LLMs), the use of GPT-4 (Generative Pre-Trained Transformer – 4), DALL-E 2 Image Generations, and Deepfake video technologies, it is going to become increasingly difficult to identify and distinguish false information from facts. For example, with new AI resources, we can imagine a future in which the elderly will receive live calls from what appears to be their grandchildren asking for money for various emergencies. The individual will look and sound exactly like their grandchild, but it will be a hacker using Deepfake AI technology to fool them into sending the money electronically.
And we have already seen how hackers can influence the outcomes of elections.5 AI can be used to create highly convincing fake videos, images, or audio, which could be misused for spreading misinformation, propaganda, or defaming individuals, leading to reputational damage or societal unrest. With new AI technologies, it will become increasingly difficult to identify, regulate, and legislate against those who abuse it.
I believe we must now ask ourselves: Are we really digitally-manipulated to this extent? Are there no independent reliable information sources to which we can turn to find out actual facts regarding important issues? Of course there are. As bleak as this picture seems to be painting, we can forearm ourselves with some of the most reliable sources of information available online. These include sites such as:
- Snopes: https://www.snopes.com/
- Pressbooks – Web Literacy: https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/
- Politifact: https://www.politifact.com/
- Factcheck.org: https://www.factcheck.org/
- SciCheck: https://www.factcheck.org/scicheck/
- Washington Post Fact Checker: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/
- NPR Fact-Check: https://www.npr.org/sections/politics-fact-check
- Lie Detectors: https://lie-detectors.org/
- Hoax Slayer: https://counteringdisinformation.org/
- Climate Feedback: https://climatefeedback.org/
- Quote Investigator: https://quoteinvestigator.com/
- The Hound (Mexico): https://www.animalpolitico.com/sabueso/?seccion=discurso
- Guardian Reality Check (UK): https://www.theguardian.com/news/reality-check
- BBC Reality Check (UK): https://www.bbc.com/news/reality_check
- Full Fact (UK): https://fullfact.org/
- The Logical Indian: https://thelogicalindian.com/fact-check
- Altnews: https://www.altnews.in/
- Bellingcat: Home of Online Investigations: https://www.bellingcat.com/
- The Centre for Information Resilience: https://www.info-res.org/
- Disinfowatch (Canada): https://disinfowatch.org/
- Media Bias/Fact Check: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/
- FlackCheck: http://flackcheck.org/
- International Fact-Checking Network: https://www.ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org/
- New Literacy Project: https://newslit.org/
- Mediawise: https://www.poynter.org/mediawise/
- National Association for Media Literacy Education: https://namle.net/
- New York Times – Fact Checks: https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/fact-checks
- Media Smarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy: https://checkthenshare.ca/
- News Literacy Network: https://newsliteracynetwork.org/
Whenever you come across any information that you suspect may contain falsehoods, you can use any of these sources to fact check it. Some of these sites will even consider the degree of truthfulness or falsehood of specific claims i.e. there may be some level of truth to the context or background information while the central conclusion is false. But be wary of using Generative AI systems as some have been known to ‘hallucinate’ or simply make up information which is not factually accurate. At this point in time, it is perhaps best to stick to a fact-checking service that still employs humans to do the actual fact checking.
I believe it is important to acknowledge the context in which we have found ourselves in a world in which so much false information can be spread so quickly around the world. As the famous quote goes: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”6
We have witnessed a worldwide phenomenon in which an inverse proportional relationship between the rise of various forms of online social media and the decline of responsible journalism has created a perfect environment for the proliferation of false information in all its forms. These two factors are joint processes which have dramatically increased the ease with which false information can be disseminated and shared online. We have also seen that the very nature of the operating procedures of online activity i.e. algorithms, skews very heavily in favour of confirming our already pre-existing biases. And we are becoming increasingly aware of new, evolving problems with the recent developments in AI technologies. But as they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. In other words, now that we know the contextual processes which have led to our current state of digital evolution, we can take measures to empower ourselves in an effort to assure that we avoid succumbing to the trappings of false information in all its forms.
- Many of the ideas expressed in this paper come from research conducted in developing a course and subsequent book called: How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist. For those interested in taking this course online, it is available at The Life Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University and will be taught in the Fall of 2023.
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outrage_porn
- This has been attributed to many different authors including Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Franklin, Fisher Ames, and Thomas Jefferson. See: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/07/13/truth/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CA%20lie%20can%20travel%20around,boots.%E2%80%9D%E2%80%94Mark%20Twain.&text=Once%20fairly%20on%20its%20feet,%E2%80%94Alamosa%20(Colo.)