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Protecting Yourself From Disinformation

From conspiracy theories, to trolls and bots, we're fighting a war of propaganda and misinformation. But there are steps you can take to combat it.

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We are in the middle of an ugly time, plagued by conspiracy theories, political machinations, stochastic violence, and actual plague. Ideally, we’d have a much healthier discourse. But due to an unfortunate confluence of events (the enthusiasm that Facebook and the GOP share for spreading weaponized conspiracy theories, climate disasters, the Kremlin and all its imitators), we don’t—and it doesn’t look like the disinformation attacks will be ending anytime soon.

But there are ways you can shield yourself from the onslaught. And sometimes, if you’re so inclined, you can stop disinformation in its tracks. In fact, you should. We are in a war, like it or not, and we have to act accordingly. It is a new kind of war, where battles are fought from behind screens rather than in the streets—although some of this is being fought in the streets and used for online terrorism or radicalization purposes as well. That’s why they call it hybrid warfare. It has been used most effectively in the United States as a way to bring about chaos and instability, as described in this February 2020 article published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs:

Cyber warfare focused on existing social vulnerabilities—what RAND refers to as “virtual societal warfare”—represents the third major threat posed by these emerging hybrid warfare strategies. The goal of hybrid warfare is not conquest but instability, throwing one’s opponent off balance and leaving them more vulnerable to other forms of pressure or conflict. The strategy focuses on critical vulnerabilities in political, economic, and social structures, further dividing societies by preying upon their own weaknesses. When combined with lack of attribution, social groups turn on each other rather than recognize that what is happening is part of a concerted, outside attack. Targeted populations of these attacks are led to believe that they come from fellow residents. Astroturf groups propagated on social media can create and disseminate disinformation and conspiracy theories, and in general leave people unsure of where they should turn for solid, reliable information.

Not enough has been written about this emerging threat, which is especially potent because the United States has historically been reluctant to acknowledge much of the bloodier and more shameful parts of its own past and present: Genocide, slavery, eugenics, racism, inequality, misogyny, and the intersectional failures that have grown out of it all. These issues filter down into the personal, and we have all witnessed how easy it can be to exploit (and to be exploited by) these largely unexamined parts of our history.

But there is some good news that comes with this. It means that the connection between the personal and the political has never been so clear. It means that anyone who wishes to fight this new kind of enemy, which leverages our own selves against ourselves and pits us against one another in order to break societal bonds and thus unity, can do so.

That also means there are ways, as I said, you can fight back against the disinformation issue on a personal front. I have tried to keep these tips simple, but they are not always easy. Some of them require profound introspection and sometimes attitude or behavior adjustments that take some effort.

1. When you read a story that engages you, ask yourself why. How do you feel? What emotions are in play? Are you fearful, enraged, feeling schadenfreude? Examine what made you feel that way. Was it the language, the subject matter, the photos? Then make sure to check your sources and read a few versions of the same story. It is incredibly easy to hijack emotions to spread disinformation. People who won’t ordinarily fall for propaganda will leap at it if the right emotion is triggered. We need only look at how easily QAnon leveraged parents’ fears of child abduction into an anti-Semitic, weaponized conspiracy theory, for just one example.

This is not to say that legitimate, fact-based, yet emotionally charged stories do not exist. They do, and some of them should be emotionally charged. Recent details that have emerged about forced sterilizations in immigration detention centers come to mind. Some horrors simply need to be reported as horrors. But if you are caught up in the grip of some strong emotion, check your sources anyway. Sometimes it is helpful to read horrific stories in more dispassionate language in order to process them.

Consider, also, that there is a lot of fear mongering at all levels to make people fighting against dark and authoritarian forces seem outnumbered. That is not the case. Toxic people such as fascists and authoritarians may be common, but they are vastly outnumbered. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need to resort to all of this trickery to dishearten and dispirit the rest of us. It’s just more disinformation.

2. Take time away. Do yoga, meditate, read novels, watch dumb TV shows, go for a walk, think about other things. Let your brain rest so you can process the overwhelming amount of information and disinformation that everyone has been hit with. Feeling information overload is the product of an actual disinformation tactic known as the firehose of falsehood. Like its creepily close cousin fear mongering, it is an attempt to leave everyone exhausted, dispirited, and numb. If you are able to turn your head off, even if it’s for yet another episode of The Office, do so. Care for yourself so that you can pay better attention to the active measures that have been inflicted on us all. It’s not going anywhere. Don’t allow yourself to become cynical. Things can change for the better, and if we all work together, they will.

3. Fight back. Throw those active measures right back in the faces of bad faith disinformation purveyors! Fuck civility! Tell liars and grifters what you think of their lies. We are in a war. This is no time for delicacy. Call these people out. Work to deplatform them every way possible; report them, call them out publicly, tell everybody exactly what they are. They will whine and bitch and moan, because attention is their oxygen. They are trying to radicalize people through their words and actions. They don’t care about civil society, or human rights, or the dignity of others.

Upsetting terrible people can be a great way to spend one’s time, and it acts as a form of social control when nothing else will do. Consider this: they might not be able to feel shame, but they can absolutely be shamed, and that often short-circuits propagandists entirely. The more negative attention disinformation purveyors get the less likely they are to purvey it. To put it another way: Bullies are lazy cowards who want effortless respect and approbation. Their brand of predatory abuse is just fascism writ small. Let them know it’s unacceptable and never discount the effectiveness of having a whole bunch of angry people yelling at you publicly. The internet is perfect for that. Go brigade the worst assholes. Be mean—but be mean in the service of a society that values truth, trust, and human dignity. It’s just a technique turned back against the attackers, so use it in good health.The worst thing about the internet today (also the best thing about the internet today) is that anyone can say anything to anybody. You have a voice. Use it! Push back!

4. This is the most important thing to learn: Know yourself. Be true to who you are. This isn’t just some hippie-dippie self-help bullshit. There are many personality traits that exist on a continuum of negative to positive, and the difference is awareness. That’s how hubris can be turned into self-confidence, or anxiety can be turned into care and thoughtfulness.

In a disinformation landscape that is dominated by social media’s theft of our personality data, your unexamined traits become personality flaws, and disinformation purveyors know how to exploit them and manipulate them to be as toxic as possible. So in order to fight against flaws turned into exploitable weaknesses, you must know yourself so that you can work with all that makes you the lovely, original, irreplaceable person you are.

This is a difficult concept for me to articulate, so I will offer up myself as an example. I think that my greatest weaknesses are hubris, hot-headedness, and spite. I think highly of myself and love when terrible things happen to bad people, especially bad people who I personally despise. It’s just the best.

If I didn’t know that these were part of my personality, they would be major security flaws, because if you flatter me and feed me disinformation about something bad happening to somebody I hate, I really, really want to believe it. Tell me I’m great and that my enemies suck, yes, please.

But since I know this about myself I can guard against it. Self-awareness, hubris, bad temper, and spite become manageable as (mostly) self-confidence, a strong desire for a fair and just world, and the motivation to fight for one. I qualify it as “mostly” because sometimes I screw up. (See tip number five.)

Authenticity and self-awareness are kryptonite to those who would exploit you to destroy social bonds. And you are a superhero, so use authenticity and self-awareness to become resilient and adaptable. Those will offer you resilience in the face of corrosive rhetoric and actions, and resilience means you’re adding to society’s immune system to that corrosion. It also makes it easier to resist smears, insults, and blackmail.

5. Be kind. Everyone makes mistakes, especially in a world full of firehosing, trickery, fuckery, and misdirection. You probably will fall for some bullshit too. So be kind to yourself if you do. It’s not a failure, it’s how we learn as a species.But—while it’s not inherently bad to be wrong—it becomes a security issue in a disinformation landscape. If you are stating something publicly that you find out is wrong, you must be willing and ready to admit when you know you are. Digging in your heels when you know that you are wrong but don’t like what somebody is telling you is completely normal, but if you don’t admit it (even to yourself) then you cannot learn.

Disinformation can only work in darkness. So let us all shine together and we can light the way to a better future together. And because we can, we must. Because if we don’t write the future, the bastards will—and we can never let them grind us down.

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