We are now bombarded with more disinformation than ever before. Intentional misinformation can impact our day-to-day decisions we make about parenting, nutrition, finances and healthcare – anything in our lives in which we need to make informed decisions. Disinformation is not exclusive to politics and it is not a new phenomenon. It’s as old as the Trojan horse given as a “gift” to the city of Troy by the Greek army.
In his book Information Wars, Richard Stengel defined disinformation as “the deliberate creation and distribution of information that is false and deceptive in order to mislead an audience.” Misinformation in contrast to Disinformation, Stengel said, is false, though it is not deliberately deceptive. Misinformation is created inadvertently by a mistake. It is the deliberate nature of disinformation that makes it so harmful.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roberts said in his 2019 End-of-Year Report,“ In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.” Roberts warns us to beware of disinformation and not to take democracy for granted.
Democracies thrive on the free flow of information and the diversity of opinion. It is our dedication to free speech that makes it difficult to combat disinformation. So, what do we do as consumers of information? How do we, as individuals, heed Judge Roberts’ warning to not succumb to disinformation and protect our democracy?
Think of news as food for your brain. We know if we feed our bodies with poor quality food it adversely impacts our health, so we are careful to obtain our food from trusted sources and have a general awareness of the ingredients. Disinformation by its definition is intended to manipulate and adversely impact your thinking. That means we need to put as much thought into the information you consume in your head as you do for the food you put on your table. Granted, food comes with nutrition labels so you can easily know what you’re getting, but with a little research you can also obtain the source of your news and verify its content to determine if it is disinformation. Trust the news you consume.
Here are some tips to help you navigate the news and steer clear of disinformation:
Know the perspective of your source of news by using a reliable bias checker such as allsides.com or MediaBiasFactCheck.com. Their ratings are determined by blind surveys of respondents across the political spectrum and third-party data.
Trace the source of the money behind the publication or digital site. Look up the news source on Wikipedia to find the owner, CEO, editor and related business interests. These are oftentimes live links that can lead you to other pertinent information to reveal potential biases.
Verify the content of the story with a trusted fact checker such as factcheck.org, PolitiFact.com, apnews.com/APFactCheck, pointer.org/ifcn/, nytimes.com/spotlight/fact-checks, and washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker. Generally, if a story seems outrageous, it probably is disinformation. Creators of disinformation prey on the audiences’ emotions, either to stir up a sense of rage or injustice, in order to entice them to share the story with others. Use a factchecker for any story that raises your suspicions.
The final tidbit of advice to help you avoid disinformation, keeping with the food analogy, is to make sure you consume news from a wide variety of sources. You wouldn’t eat from one food group, so get a complete diet of daily news from several sources. You’ll feel better and so will those around you.
The Town Line will be following the important topic of disinformation with updates throughout the year. The next topic will be a non-partisan look at the impact of disinformation.