Disinformation Is Coming To A Computer Near You

With the 2020 election coming up, we can expect plenty of disinformation in our news feeds. Disinformation originates in many places – Russia and homegrown United States. It filters up into what we would like to think of as reliable news sources. Those sources, because of their desire to believe that “both sides” have equal claim to truth, can be manipulated.

I’ll continue to post about recognizing that disinformation, because it’s up to all of us to make sure that what we’re sharing is truthful.

The New York Times has a big article from Josh Owens, who worked for Infowars and now says he regrets it. Another article, on Britain’s struggle with Russia over the poisoning, on British soil, of two people with a nerve agent by Russians, contains information about how the Russians use disinformation.

The Times article depicts Alex Jones as violent and demanding that his employees generate outrageously fear-producing stories. Nothing that Infowars touches should be considered reliable. Respectable news organizations should trace stories to their origins and reject anything that has been pushed by Infowars unless it has completely independent backing.

One of the stories Infowars pushed was that Fukushima radiation was showing up on the west coast of the United States. The responsible media dealt reasonably well with that, although it took some time. Here’s what the Washington Post reported in 2014. But I also saw (and debunked) a lot of sharing on social media of maps that weren’t of radiation levels and the dramatic video of radiation measurements on a California beach.

Russian and Republican disinformation flood the zone with alternative stories, designed to turn people off by making it too difficult to figure out what’s right so that people give up. “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.”

After the Skripals were poisoned and the British government began putting out information to its citizens, the Russian government jumped in, attacking the British information for apparent contradictions and offering up multiple explanations of the incident. The point was to make people doubt their own government. The Atlantic article lays this out in full detail for the Skripal incident.

What can you do?

First, stop thinking “They’re all liars.” or “Nobody can really know.” I know it’s cool to be cynical, but in doing that, you’re giving up your ability to think critically and make good choices and probably helping to muddy the waters for others.

Second, know who supplied the material you’re sharing on social media. Most of us don’t have time or aren’t set up to trace material back to its Russian or Infowars roots. So if you don’t know that the material came from a reliable source, don’t share it. Just don’t.

Third, if you’re concerned about something you’ve seen, check with an expert. Snopes fact-checks many of the memes you may see. Washington Post has a fact-check column. FactCheck.org is another good resource. You can ask me about science-related stuff.

There is such a thing as fact. You can find it. Or at least avoid spreading disinformation.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

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