It comes in many forms. And in 2020 it can be a matter of “life, death and democracy,” as one expert puts it.
In the information age, it can be hard to decipher the truth from all the noise around us.
“We just have a massive amount of information coming at us at all times,” said Alex Mahadevan, senior multimedia reporter for the digital literacy organization MediaWise. “And a great bit of it is misinformation.”
The truth is, the internet and social media can be incredible gateways. We can work from home, virtually visit loved ones, and even go to school online.
But those same paths can also lead us into dark places: Scams, hoaxes, lies, conspiracy theories.
“If you sort of are looking around and see chaos everywhere, that’s deeply unsatisfying,” said Jenny Rice, a professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky. “You want to know ‘why is this happening, why did this happen?’”
Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, but the internet has made it far easier to amplify them and find fellow believers. They often develop in times of crisis or social upheaval, experts say, as a way of making sense of things, even if it doesn’t make it better.
“Sometimes we search for the simplest answer that also can give us the most complete sense of why this is happening, there is some reason behind it,” said Rice, who also authored the book “Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric and Acts of Evidence.”
Misinformation comes in many forms. It may not always be quite so far-fetched, but it can be equally as dangerous.
“It’s something that thrives during crises,” Mahadevan said. “And right now, given that we’re in the middle of a public health pandemic and have an election coming up, navigating the information you find online and being able to sort out fact from fiction is a matter of life, death and democracy.”
Just because someone tweets it does not mean it is true. But it is easy to fall for – and even easier for lies, twisted truths and out-of-context information to spread like wildfire.
Claim after claim, post after post, video after video all fill the void left by an erosion in trust in institutions like government, experts and traditional media.
“I fear in the last decade that we have sown the wind and we are going to reap the whirlwind,” said journalism professor and political columnist Al Cross. “I do not know what that whirlwind will blow, but it will not be pleasant.”
Finding the line between fact and fiction is vital, especially now. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and a pivotal presidential campaign (regardless on which side of the aisle you stand), our future could depend on it.
“People need to understand sources of information. They need to be able to evaluate sources of information,” Cross said. “And they need to be willing to accept sources of information that may not be carrying the political water they want carried.”