In A Sea of Disinformation

Sometimes I feel like I am drowning in a sea of information, misinformation and disinformation.

Social media allows us to access millions of articles, news, and comments written by people we know and by people we don’t know, by people we used to know, but don’t remember anymore, or by people whom we know very well but would love not to. All day, every day.

Not all the news, opinions and comments are true. Sometimes it’s because they were misinterpreted to reflect something that is not really there, sometimes because they are simply lies. Sometimes they don’t even have to be that, they simply need to be weirdly aggressive opinions.

I sometimes think about the things I learned and didn’t learn while I was in school. Something that was not taught to us was to really look into what we were seeing, to research and filter information. In Mexico, the country I was born and grew up in, kids my age still got taught the story of the Niños Héroes (a story of six cadets who died defending Mexico during one of the last Mexican-American wars) in our History Class without making any effort to differentiate between historical facts and the details that were added later for nationalistic purposes. This practice of teaching nationalist myths over accurate historical facts is something that U.S. readers are also familiar with. I do not remember what my second grade history teacher’s response was when I raised my hand to say that the story was made up, but I remember she was not happy about it. As it turns out, parts of it are made up, but I was eight and she was not going to teach something different from the curriculum.

By the time I was in the 9th grade, things were different but not really. I now had this amazing history teacher who was the exact opposite of what my second grade teacher had been. She always drew a clear line between myths and historical facts, she presented other perspectives, she was openly critical of imperialism and would not hesitate to call things by their name. I loved her class. At the same time, I had this biology teacher who was always going on about being “too much of a scientist to be religious”, he was all about facts and science. And right after saying that, he would feed us with the wildest, most absurd, racist ideas, presenting them as “pure biological facts”. We had never heard about them before, but he was a true scientist, so they must have been true. He also scolded girls for using “inappropriate language” and he lashed out at boys who did not conform to his idea of masculinity. Information and disinformation made their way into our young minds through the same door. It was a good school, a private school, with imported teachers and everything. Teachers who had traveled the world and were open-minded professionals, and that didn’t mean a thing.

At church, they would read to us time and time again that verse that says how important it is to “carefully examine Scripture”, but I have not met many people who taught us how to do that. More often than not, I heard preachers share their questionable interpretations as if they were absolute. Sometimes I looked around to see if there was someone who also found it all so weird. Once during a Bible class, a person turned to me and whispered, “what is wrong with this man?”, but nobody else said anything. Certainly not during class and especially not to the man, who was very interested in selling us a book that he had written. But it has been at church that I have heard preachers talk about how important it is not to get carried away by human interpretation, to go back to the original meaning, to see everything in context, to always seek the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. It wasn’t the same church though. I’ve left more than one church.

Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be taught, practiced, and maintained, like physical exercise. And just like exercise, it hurts like hell and it is exhausting when you’re not used to doing it. When you first start, it feels like the worst idea ever, but as time goes by, you start getting used to it. It will still hurt, every time you reach new ground, but it will be for your own good. It has taken me a long time and a lot of effort to unlearn millions of things that I learned at school, at church, on the streets… and there’s still a long, long way to go.

I sometimes think about this Bible verse:

Test all things, hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

1 Thessalonians 5: 21-22

I’m not one for declaring things to be “good” or “evil” on a daily basis, not really. However, I do believe that knowing what’s really happening around us, making informed decisions, and being honest are part of what is good. And I think that lying to people, willingly keep them in the dark for one’s own power, making them believe conspiracies just so one can make profit are things that should count as evil.

In this sea of information and disinformation, that verse has gained a new meaning. The relationship that we have with the internet has changed how we see things, it is extremely easy to find and start believing conspiracy theories, and that puts everyone at risk, not just the people who believe them. One of the worst parts is that these theories often come from people, groups, or pages that we already know. People are more prompt to believe them because they come from these familiar sources. Other times people believe them because, more than teaching them something new, they “confirm” a thought, prejudice or suspicion that was already there. Confirmation bias, it’s called. The whole thing turns into this vicious cycle where people believe something and look it up with the purpose of confirming it so they can claim they’re true and keep believing them.

But it is at this point that I have to ask, when were we taught how to deal with that? How many of us were thrown out into the world with the words “don’t believe everything you read on the internet” without even bothering to explain how to differentiate between the internet that we can trust and the internet we cannot trust?

The other day, I saw this argument on Facebook between two people that I know. One was using screenshots of fake news to make some wild transphobic, racist and antisemitic claims (all at the same time!) that were the opposite of the news of that had been just published that day. The second person, not wanting to do their homework for them, went on to Twitter to an official news account and screenshotted the article that contradicted the fake news. The first person then accused the latter of being a hypocrite because they were “using Twitter as the source”. That first person is usually a horrible person, but leaving their unfortunate personality aside, I can sort of understand that they didn’t understand why there was a difference. That person did not grow up with this kind of media, they had to learn to use and navigate it as adults and nobody ever taught them how to differentiate between the different kinds of content. It can be hard.

However, part of the problem is that we often don’t want to unlearn what we know, we don’t want to question what has us so comfortable, to let go of the familiar, to accept that we were wrong. Admit that I was wrong and actually didn’t know what I was talking about? Me? Never. That hurts. It hurts my ego.

Nowadays I see more often advice on how to identify disinformation. Google what you’re reading and contrast it with other sources, check if the sources are known as being trustworthy, if what they’re claiming has been verified, and examine the text: Does it cite its sources? Are the arguments well-made or do they contradict each other? And I think that these kinds of advice are good, especially for the generations that are growing up in this brave new world. It’s good that they get used to questioning what they read. But what about people who are already older adults and are not used to fact-checking everything they read in the papers? What about people (young and old) who are not willing to put in the work because of their giant ego? What about the people who are doing this because they want to feel superior to others, because they want to establish or maintain some sort of power? Or, as they used to say at my school, what about those who just want to lie to be popular?

To look for the facts among the lies can be very difficult because sometimes the facts are twisted repackaged in such a way that we only understand lies. To learn to identify fake news and to differentiate between real untold stories and conspiracy theories can be complicated. But it is something that is worth doing, even if it takes time and effort, even if we sometimes fail, even if we don’t feel like doing it, even if it hurts. It is always best to move as honestly as possible, making informed decisions, and seeing things the way they are.

In this sea of disinformation, the best we can do is take the ship’s wheel and learn to navigate.

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Paola Navarro Villa

Paola Navarro Villa

Protestant, PolSci MA student, reader, writer and coffee drinker