Misinformation can literally kill you

Bob Smith kicks puppies.

There, you heard it once.

Believe it? No?

How about if you heard it 20 times?

OK, you tell yourself, that’s 20 times from one source. You ask yourself if the source is trustworthy.

Then it’s repeated from 20 other sources, say via a retweet or Facebook share. Maybe a couple of news outlets pick it up and repeat it, using the lazy but legally defensible practice of “we don’t necessarily believe Bob’s a puppy-kicked, we’re just sharing what was said.”

Suddenly you’re seeing it all over the place; it’s only natural to think maybe there’s something to it.

It burrows into your head that this Bob Smith fellow is a practiced and enthusiastic puppy-kicker and thus an irredeemably horrible human being.

And you probably have questions. Why would he do such a thing? Why doesn’t anybody stop him?

Who’s Bob Smith?

He’s a fiction, an example, of how disinformation spreads. There are plenty more examples, sadly, in real life.

How’d we get here?

Part of the problem is that, once upon a time, major news outlets served as gatekeepers, filtering out nonsense stories before they reached readers. With the end of the Fairness Doctrine, rise of cable news and then the flood of social media, that gate has been breached.

Part of the problem can be found by looking in the mirror.

It’s said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on. (Ironically, that quote is often misattributed to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, but in fact was apparently around well before either were born).

Research published in Science magazine back in 2018 bore this out by looking at rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. It found false news reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth lagged behind, being diffused to around 1,000 people. It is convenient to think robots repeating false information are to blame, but the writers found “contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

Thing is, it doesn’t take much source material to spread falsehoods. The top falsehood in quite some time is “The Big Lie,’’ repeated almost daily or hourly by former President Donald Trump, claiming the 2020 election was rigged and stolen (even before it happened).

After Trump’s Twitter account, and some accounts of key allies, were suspended, online misinformation dropped by a whopping 73% in a week, according to the research firm Zignal Labs.

But the misinformation mill is quite robust, and new claims sprout daily, particularly regarding the election. One meme that has taken hold is that the there was evidence of fraud, but 60-some judges refused to hear it. In fact, the cases usually dealt with standing or harm; to keep with the puppy analogy, Trump was filing suit because someone kicked his puppy.

The judges, in essence, said “you don’t own a puppy, hit the road.’’

Still, editors and political scientists across North Carolina are doubtlessly having to grapple with the “refused to be heard’’ argument. It’s a classic piece if misinformation, containing a kernel of truth wrapped in layers of falsehoods.

Misinformation is a more critical issue than ever before. After all, we’re in a raging pandemic. Misinformation can literally kill you.

That fact is more trouble in a time when powerful tech companies have now, reluctantly, been forced into the role of gatekeeper.

The far preferable option is that we choose to be better consumers of information.

Regarding COVID-19, that information can be confusing and hard to find. That’s understandable, as it’s an entirely new dragon we’re trying to slay, and while we’ve learned a lot, there are still an awful lot of questions.

Regarding politics, not so much. A grain of salt is the order of the day when you hear Bob Smith kicks puppies, one time or 200.

As Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey, a former homicide detective, put it after state officials were swamped with death threats regarding the “stolen’’ election there, put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bill Torpy:

“People ask the difference between working homicides and elections.

“In homicide, you occasionally come across remorse.”

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