The saying goes, “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” In the weeks before the 2020 presidential election we need to consider the efficacy of online data. People need to be able to vet information they find online. Many find data (and “facts”) which suit their political opinion. In many cases network television news does hide their agenda. Vetting information online can be tricky. Online news sites and a multitude of social media platforms are driven by influencers who are often uninformed or intentional in spreading lies. Truth has been contested since the beginning of time, but never so openly where people cannot agree on basic principles.
The current environment
Authoritarian style leaders (including democracies) have zero regard for truth. Whether that be science-based facts (as with Covid) or current events, they bend reality to their will and astutely use tools such as social media to drown out critics and amplify their toxic views. In the past, brutal oppressive regimes such as Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany bent the truth and reality to serve the lust for control and power. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s Minister of Propaganda, has been credited with creating the template for modern propaganda and the distortion of truth for political gain.
While we are not in a fight with Nazis, there are brutal regimes and pernicious actors such as China, Iran, and Russia who actively spread propaganda. They distort truth as a way to cover up local human rights abuses and to sow discontent, as Russia and China did during recent social protests in the US.
Let us put aside that human nature is not perfect and that many organizations have an angle. However, there are organizations which see truth as something to uphold. Manipulation of truth is a slippery slope towards undemocratic governance. In that regard, Google has been the vanguard in checking facts online.
Google has an interest in fact checking – they want your trust in what you read online. Users will abandon an untrusted platform. This concept seems to be lost on Facebook, as indicated by the social media’s engagement, which is waning. As an example, fake videos on Covid-19 are a battleground for the truth. YouTube’s (owned by Google) algorithms can identify fake videos, but Facebook features the same videos. As this Guardian article states “Facebook had promised to crack down on conspiracy theories and inaccurate news early in the pandemic. But as its executives promised accountability, its algorithm appears to have fueled traffic to a network of sites sharing dangerous false news, campaign group Avaaz has found.”
How to find the truth
LexisNexis may have been used for our college term papers, but it is still relevant today as this helpful resource details fact checking. It is not just technology to verify ‘facts’, but also about gut instinct. A big challenge is that many do not trust their instincts and rely too much on technology to guide them to answers. Enamorment of the latest tech is sometimes detrimental. Using some of the following sites can help uncover the truth along with gut instinct.
It is also important to follow reputable sources. This Vox article states “your social feeds are most shaped by who you follow, so following reputable sources of information and news is probably your best bet. Unfollowing known sources of misinformation, even if that includes close friends and family, is probably worth considering as well.”
We often rely on our friends and network for inspiration and information, but everyone will not have the same view of the truth. Many will post content without fact checking, which is how misinformation spreads.
Some will abuse their roles and spread misinformation. Undemocratic leaders cultivating a cult of personality is not new. However, their reach and the speed in which misinformation can spread has changed. Heading to the elections, the amount of misinformation will only increase. Please check where your facts come from. Our democracy may rely on it.