The Threat of Disinformation Facilitated by Social Media

We live in the Information Age where the majority of people can research practically anything instantaneously from the palm of their hand. While the utility of easy access to knowledge should never be understated, the content can be purposely misleading or blatantly false. Disinformation is the root of major issues in our democracy, yet only until recently have academics and researchers begun to look at its effects. Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter all play major roles in the threat of disinformation. They give people easy access to information and opportunities to share opinions and ‘facts’. But what happens when those ‘facts’ are false? Although the premise of this issue isn’t new—information warfare has been around since the beginning of civilization—when information warfare tactics infiltrate every day life to millions of people the effects can be calamitous. Disinformation facilitated by social media is a national security threat and civic crisis which deserves more attention.

Disinformation on social media, whether foreign or domestic, jeopardizes national security. Foreign countries can easily manipulate what American citizens see on social media. With increasingly effective technology such as deepfakes and social media algorithms, people and corporations with the sole purpose of damaging American society can easily do so by spreading disinformation on social media sites.

The issue has sparked a civic crisis which is extremely damaging to our national security. Disinformation can be characterized as the use of non-rational arguments to manipulate people’s views on societal problems. This leads to the degradation of civic discourse, especially when you can’t tell whether either side is sharing information that is true. In order to pursue political objectives, there are politicians and political groups who spread lies on social media accounts for political gain. Politics in the US can be extremely volatile and disinformation is always fuel to the fire, especially with the two party system. When a public figure from one party either deliberately posts fake news (disinformation) or mistakenly posts fake news (misinformation), people on that side of the party will believe it to be true. We have seen how this can directly lead to dangerous riots and hostility.

There is not enough attention being drawn to the issue. From personal experience, during the lockdowns and crazy events that were happening throughout 2020, when all we could really do was watch the news or scroll through social media, I began noticing a lot of information being reposted by my peers which was blatantly false with a quick Google search. There wasn’t much I could do other than see what other people were posting and be shocked by how inaccurate the information was. False information is easy to fall for on social media, especially when people are not trained to think critically. The critical thinking process needs to extend beyond normal academics, and can’t be neglected when using social media.

Some may consider disinformation easy to identify and not prevalent in their everyday social media use, therefore not a big deal. It certainly has run through my head when beginning to research the issue. More often than not, disinformation doesn’t appear blatantly. It may be true that you do not come across people spreading disinformation on your social media page, but that doesn’t mean it is not out there affecting thousands of people. Disinformation spreading on social media groups such as QAnon have grown in popularity. Though there are many factors that contributed to the infamous capitol riot on January 6th, QAnon and disinformation were likely the number one instigators.

Recently there has been a solid effort to combat disinformation through technical approaches such as lie detecting algorithms and online fact checking. The problem with these efforts is that technology and algorithms that share false information online are advancing at the same speed as the technical solutions, and there is a lot of concern about the threat these approaches have on freedom of speech. The solution should be through awareness that not everything you see online is true, and awareness that critical thinking skills must apply even in sources of entertainment.

Author: Matthew Verich

Location: Virginia, U.S.A