How Hopeless Should We Feel About Internet Rumormongering?

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The internet, as we all know by now, and particularly social media, exacerbate every psychological tendency that causes people to spread and believe stuff that isn’t true. If you’re in need of a reminder that this is the case, just log onto Facebook or Twitter.

That’s the subject of a long essay Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner published earlier this week entitled “How technology disrupted the truth,” in which she explained how the pro-Brexit campaign fed off the internet’s disregard for discerning truth from falsehold — and the essay provides an interesting tour of the current state of internet truthiness.

Thanks to social media’s ability to amplify rumors and lies, she explains, a bunch of wacky and misleading claims — such as that leaving the EU would save Britain £350 million pounds a week that it could plow right back into its National Health Service (nope) — went viral, likely affecting the eventual outcome of that vote. “This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics,” she writes, and “the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.”

Viner then zooms out to evaluate the broader landscape:

Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles — and what makes their resolution an urgent matter — is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.

The short answer of why the internet is such a rich, nurturing environment for falsehood is that it profoundly reduces the friction inherent to transmitting a given piece of information from one person to another. With a click, big accounts can amplify unverified rumors, sending them to tens of thousands of people. And especially when people are emotionally aroused, when they’re fired up or scared or furious — like during a debate over whether Britain should leave the EU, for example — whatever normal critical faculties they possess are dulled, making it even more likely they’ll propagate falsehoods. Humans have always had these psychological tendencies; it’s just that the internet stokes them by feeding us a constant dripdripdrip of appealing and salacious and astounding stories — and, as Viner points out, by “filter-bubbling” us into corners of the internet filled mostly with people we already agree with, further sapping our ability to fairly evaluate claims that clash with what we believe. It’s a rough scene, in other words — especially when you factor in that big outlets are often, these days, more concerned with publishing salacious headlines than in carefully fact-checking their content.

But is there anything we can do about individual-level decisions that lead to rumors spreading in the first place? Viner doesn’t really get into this, and it’s interesting to think about.

For most of humanity’s history, we lived in small groups — partly because of this, we are a very rumor- and gossip-happy species. We’re capable of fact-checking, but it isn’t exactly in our nature, all else being equal. In much the same way our love for calories doesn’t inevitably doom us to only eat junk food, though, we can override these tendencies.

Already, the savviest internet users are starting to understand that they shouldn’t retweet everything that comes across their feeds that feels true. And overall there’s been more and more coverage of the internet’s role as a rumor-incubator, including from Viner. She’s right that things have gotten worse lately, of course, but that could be because we’re still in a weird adolescent phase in which people haven’t fully come to realize how their behavior contributes to this mess.

If we start making a conscious effort to shape these norms, we could improve things, at least a bit. And just as social media makes it easy to spread false information online, it also makes it easier to call out people who do. This doesn’t mean that everyone should go around nagging and policing anyone who spreads something that’s false, but rather that the biggest accounts — those most responsible for the spread of false rumors — should feel that there is a cost to not fact-checking. That would be a useful first step, at least.

It would be foolishly optimistic to think the internet will ever be free of rumors, or even close to free. But it would be nice if the conversation about how to help fix things filtered down from academics and researchers to the people actually taking part in the messy, truthy cacophony going on 24/7.