There’s a new virus in town and it’s not fooling around. You can catch it through face-to-face contact or digitally – that is, via a human or bot. Few of us possess immunity, some are even willing hosts; and, despite all we’ve learned about it, this virus is proving more cunning and harder to eradicate than anyone could have expected.
Misinformation isn’t new, of course. Fake news was around even before the invention of the printing press, although the first large-scale journalistic sham occurred in 1835, when the New York Sun published six articles announcing the discovery of life on the Moon (specifically, unicorns, bat men and bipedal beavers). Consider, too, early modern witch hunts, or those colonial myths that depicted slaves as a different species; the back-and-forth volleys of anti-Jewish and anti-German propaganda during the world wars, McCarthyism’s Red Scare, even communism’s utopian narratives. History teems with deceit.
What’s different today is the speed, scope and scale of misinformation, enabled by technology. Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence. [Continue reading…]