A vibe shift in the field of misinformation studies and reporting

How do our conversations about online harms change as we understand the problems as systemic?

A vibe shift in the field of misinformation studies and reporting

Edited by Sam Thielman

POLITICAL DISCOURSE seems to be in a state of even greater flux than usual, coinciding with advancements in understanding of the underlying issues. This is especially true when the discourse in question concerns conspiracy theories, extremist hate, and otherwise corrosive online content.

The general public’s understanding of online politics—especially the internet-enabled state of perpetual unrest undergirding more than one popular movement—has advanced tremendously in the last few years. A vast majority of Americans now understand, for example, that misinformation communicated at the same scale as professional newsgathering is a persistent problem. This seems terribly basic, but even a decade ago, it wasn’t widely accepted despite having been true for far longer than that. Reporting on extremism and online harms is as plentiful as it has ever been. Politicians propose and workshop various potential solutions, to varying degrees of thoughtfulness.

Over the last year or so, I’ve watched researchers and journalists publicly and privately question long-held assumptions about how to approach and publicly discuss their focuses, rethinking what lasting solutions to those issues can look like. I think back to Joe Bernstein’s essay in Harper’s Magazine from 2021, or to the QAnon Anonymous podcast’s reexamination of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

This sort of self-scrutiny should be understood as a prelude to the next big step forward. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, but I’d argue that any discomfort with honest, good-faith internal criticism is a sign that the act itself is worthwhile. It’s vital to draw a distinction between thoughtful critique and the ravings of the types who have sought to undermine this kind of study since it rose in popularity, otherwise you end up with no space at all for criticism.

“Anything that gets a lot of pickup and buy-in from institutions and think tanks and policy areas in government is naturally going to read to some people as either opportunistic or cynical or something,” Charlie Warzel, a staff writer at The Atlantic who has reported on technology and politics for as long as I’ve known him, told me. “So I think you generally have a backlash of people seeing this work as some kind of struggle over who gets to decide the truth, and some groups of people see it as part of the general partisan freakouts over 2016, writ large.”

But on a bigger scale, Warzel sees these current moments of self-reflection as a byproduct of growth.

“The more you learn about how information moves online, the more people can see that maybe the frame of just ‘misinformation’ is a bit lacking or less helpful than trying to understand how all people are left trying to assemble narratives as the result of the massive amount of conflicting information we are bombarded by,” Warzel said. “There's this feeling that we're not just living among scores of bad actors—and we are—but that we're stuck in a broken system where we're all sort of forced to choose our own adventure.”

Tech and culture writer L.M. Sacasas articulates this exact train of thought as well as anyone else, and has been doing so for many years now. Warzel sent me a link to a recent article from Sacasas, in which he argued that the vague, popular understanding of disinformation that has driven discourse on the topic over recent years was at its heart too simplistic. Sacasas wrote:

I’m not sure the disinformation frame is the most helpful way of understanding the phenomena in question. In my view, it mostly misses the underlying conditions and consequently becomes far too blunt as an analytical instrument. Within this perspective, there tend to be only two principle actors: the malicious agents sowing disinformation and the unfortunate rubes who fall for it. That there are those who fit into those two categories is not in doubt. What is in doubt, as far as I’m concerned, is whether that is an adequate account of the experience of most people. It is telling, I think, that no one ever imagines themselves fitting into those categories, suggesting a rather impressive but also dubious degree of immunity from the dynamics of the media environment to which we are all subject, albeit to varying degrees.

After a midterm election cycle marked by preemptive panic about a wave of right-wing electoral successes—and perhaps even corresponding violence—that never materialized, the field of research around misinformation has a moment to catch its breath. Disinformation researchers are fond of asking people to adapt their own thinking to new information; perhaps the most productive use of this reflective moment is to lead by example.

Joan Donovan, a scholar at Harvard studying online misinformation, tweeted a few words that caught my attention the other day: “the field has reached an understanding that tech products are the problem.”

I can’t help but wonder what it means for people like me when these problems are more widely understood as inherent to the internet—not as a form of pollution within it.

Despite the growth in relevant fields of research and broader, more acute scrutiny of “misinformation,” data that simply doesn’t comport with measurable reality continues to spread quickly and at scale across the internet, and thwarting it remains difficult. The playbook for universally acknowledged bad actors is quite well-worn, but we still don’t have any collective ability to run a coherent defense against it.

“Certainly there have been a lot of people covering it [misinformation], which is probably good, but I don’t know that we’ve understood it particularly better,” political writer Molly Jong-Fast told me, recalling decades-old conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “This is not a phenomenon that is recent.”

Two hard truths are that conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, and that they predate the internet by quite a while. No matter what progress is made in the online world, there is still a certain amount of cultural capital owned by bullshit.

That dynamic has worsened as one of the two major parties in the United States has openly decided that misinformation is a viable political tactic not merely in the service of a strategic lie here and there, but perpetually. The Republicans are now in large part subjugated to a load-bearing system of lies; their campaign messages emerge from them.

Donald Trump, the former president and de facto leader of the Republican Party, has been cuddling up to his QAnon conspiracy theorist fans over at Truth Social. Figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories in her rise to fame, are among the most visible Republican voices in the media today. Conservative movement organizers have attached themselves to people like former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who continues to claim she was robbed of the governorship and whose allies still pretend she was elected to lead Arizona.

“That’s a paradigm shift that cannot be overrated,” Jong-Fast said.

At a certain point, solutions to misinformation must answer for that reality. It’s hard to imagine that anyone is going to be able to fact-check, “pre-bunk,” or de-platform our way out of this. A way forward almost certainly will contain an array of approaches deployed simultaneously, and will both seek to discredit bad information and empower honest sources. If we believe directed misinformation is a whole-of-society problem, the solutions will need to be similarly general.

With such a daunting task ahead, I can’t blame anyone for feeling less than optimistic for the immediate future. Systemic problems cannot be fixed overnight, and without consideration of radical options. Many of those options have costs of failure so high they’re bound to make anyone considering them seriously feel queasy. Some major social media platforms seem to be ceding ground on this fight, which doesn’t offer much hope to dejected onlookers either.

Even if the next couple of years see moments of internal struggle among those who are doing what they can to foster knowledge and growth in the fight for reality, the fight remains worth fighting.

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that none of them are “give up.”

Note: The topic of this newsletter overlaps with the kinds of things I do at my day job at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue more so than usual. This newsletter was authored independently from ISD, as all of them are.

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