“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Whether it was Mark Twain, Josh Billings, or Artemus Ward who first uttered those words — or something close to them — there is a lot of truth there.
Americans believe a lot of “just ain’t so.” Conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns can and do hook people in different ways.
A conspiracy is a secret plot by a group of people attempting to grab power; it could be political, economic, or institutional power. This is more than just a couple of gangsters plotting to knock off the corner liquor store. Watergate is one of the best-known conspiracies in recent American history. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain some political or social event as the result of a conspiracy. Radical right-wingers rationalized the horrific Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 as being staged by left-wing anti-gun-rights actors in order to take their guns away.
As compared with conspiracy theories, disinformation is planting false stories with the intent of influencing opinion and obscuring the truth, in other words, propaganda. This is not quite the same as gaslighting, making someone doubt the truth. Another name for disinformation is “alternate facts.” A recent USA Today article provides this example: “The flood of misleading narratives about the Texas power outages is part of a growing trend of disinformation campaigns popping up when extreme weather patterns sweep the country.”
Neither conspiracy theories or disinformation campaigns can survive in a vacuum. They need to be propagated. Social media has overtaken talk radio as the dominant means of pushing both. And unlike 2016, when Russian interference was the primary source of disinformation, America gets the majority of its false narratives from within.
Social media outlets use very sophisticated algorithms to route posts to users. For example, when you “like” a post, Facebook (and Twitter, and probably several other sites) increases the odds that post will be distributed to your Facebook friends and their friends. We are conditioned to believe something from our friends more than a random post from a different source. The more you process information that agrees with your “already listening,” the attitudes you have developed over time, the stronger that input is for you. So, for instance, if you have some doubts about the safety of vaccines, you’re more likely to “like” and resend a message that says “Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine causes infertility in women,” even if you doubt that. There’s a completely false meme circulating on social media to that effect, by the way.
Social media sites also put us in hives based on our likes and browsing history, so if you like a lot of liberals, you see more posts from people who also like a lot of liberals. The same is true for radical right-wing posts. These associations also help spread disinformation. Consider the impact of this on society as a whole.
Last spring, the former president started an organized disinformation campaign based on a conspiracy theory regarding voter fraud. He claimed that mail-in ballots were invalid and should be thrown out. He claimed that the only way he could lose the election was because of fraud. Those messages echoed all over conservative broadcast and social media sites; those who believed the former president bought his disinformation push, even though there’s compelling evidence that the 2020 election was virtually completely fraud-free. That fact was substantiated by more than 60 court cases.
So now, we can see where “it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” gets you in trouble. The concentrated disinformation from the 2020 campaign has led to forty-three states proposing or enacting more that 250 bills to suppress votes that the former president disliked. Those bills are solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist. They target minority voters with unerring accuracy. For instance, Georgia’s Republican government wants to restrict early voting on Sundays, when Black churches typically have “souls to the polls” drives; Arizona’s aim at reducing polling places and hours to limit Native Americans’ right to vote.
The impact of social media on society has increased tremendously since Facebook started back in 2004. Facebook and Twitter have tried to regulate the flow of disinformation, but not particularly effectively. It will take decades for the United States to recover from the damaging effects of malign operators like Russia in 2016, and the tightly-orchestrated political disinformation of the previous president. For now, it’s up to every one of us to protect ourselves from the destructive influence of fast-spreading lies. We need to take advantage of fact-checking websites like AP, NPR and Snopes. Reduce information overload. We need to train ourselves to be skeptical of odd or unlikely stories. And we need to be emotionally detached from “news” stories from questionable sources on social media.
Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.