Beyond the Click: Disinformation, Conspiracy Theories, and Empowering Individuals through Media Literacy

By: Ermoni Boghossian

Picture Credits: Jorge Franganillo via WikimediaCommons

Introduction

Recently, there has been a rise of global public opinion manipulation through disinformation tactics. The UN revealed that over 85 percent of individuals are concerned about the effects of internet disinformation, and 87 percent feel that it has already negatively impacted the political climate in their nation. In the midst of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, a wave of disinformation has flooded social media platforms. Concerns have been raised by experts regarding the impact of disinformation on fuelling conflicts and the challenges of countering false narratives amidst heightened geopolitical tensions. As an illustration, a video showcases a large group of US Marines arriving at an Israeli airport. The caption of the post on X, formerly known as Twitter, states: “HAPPENING NOW: Thousands of U.S. Marines Just Landed in Israel WW3 HIGH ALERT”. In reality, the video is from 2022 and depicts soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army making their way to Romania. 

In June 2023, France accused Russian state-sponsored media channels of disseminating false information to weaken Western democracies. Specifically, Russian media outlets were suspected of propagating misleading stories, supporting conspiracy theories, and creating storylines as part of this disinformation campaign. This  raises worries about the effects on democratic processes and international relations. Another example dates back to the COVID-19 pandemic when false claims circulated that the vaccines contained microchip trackers, while another conspiracy theory alleged that the pandemic was a fabrication used by politicians to embezzle funds. These cases serve as examples of the pressing need to tackle the issue of disinformation, specifically the intentional spread of false information on an international level. 

Unchecked disinformation has serious repercussions, including a rise in public mistrust and confusion. The spread of conspiracy theories is linked to disinformation. Disinformation strategically uses emotional triggers and confirmation bias to build and propagate conspiracy ideas, promoting mistrust and misunderstanding. People are susceptible to persuasion, especially if they believe conspiracy theories, stressing the need to understand this phenomenon.

The aim of this article is to shed light on the increasing threat of disinformation, especially on a global scale, by highlighting the necessity of media literacy and responsible use of information in preventing the propagation of false narratives. In an effort to educate and equip readers to cope with the dangers posed by disinformation, this article stresses the importance of a resilient and aware society.

The social media influence and the problem of disinformation

When talking about the spread of disinformation via social media platforms, it is crucial to clearly differentiate between misinformation, the unintentional spread of false information, and disinformation, which involves deliberate deception with the intent to mislead. This article focuses on the spread of disinformation, and will discuss the distinction between credible and non-credible media sources as they impact the credibility of information, especially in the age of social media.

Social media has become an essential aspect of contemporary life, and can connect people across distances. In a recent study, it was found that social media is used by 4.95 billion people or 61.4 percent of the world’s population. Although social media provides a platform for global connectivity and instant news discovery, social media also has a darker side.

In the realm of social media, the way algorithms work and the presence of echo chambers have fostered an environment where disinformation can quickly spread. In addition, people will encounter less opposing viewpoints in this environment. When individuals are constantly exposed to content that aligns with their preferences, it can lead to confirmation bias, making it harder for them to critically analyse information and challenge their existing beliefs. Users tend to gravitate towards information that confirms their existing beliefs, which may influence content feed algorithms. They may not actively spread or repost such content, but their passive participation can reinforce biases in their online communities. This spread of disinformation and confirmation of their existing beliefs has the potential to significantly impact public beliefs and behaviours. For instance, disinformation about presidential candidates or voting processes can rapidly circulate during elections, influencing public opinion. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic saw the swift spread of disinformation regarding the virus’s origins, prevention, and treatment. 

Combating disinformation through media literacy

Given the influence of social media platforms, a commitment to maintaining the highest standards of journalistic truth and ethical reporting is paramount. However, unreliable information has continued to spread. For instance, consider the conspiracy theory, which claims the Earth is flat, implying that there is a broad effort to conceal this supposed truth. It shows how even established scientific facts can be prone to online disinformation, highlighting the importance of media literacy and discernment when evaluating internet content. Empowering individuals to distinguish reliable sources from manipulative ones is pivotal. In the following section, the reader will be introduced to techniques to distinguish plausible online information.

Techniques to distinguish credible information

Fact-checking plays a central role in combating disinformation. Snopes, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact are essential platforms that play a significant role in verifying claims and disproving false data. Fact-checking is essential in correcting inaccuracies and deterring the spread of disinformation.

Awareness of the biases present in news sources is necessary for developing media literacy. Media outlets have different perspectives, and being aware of these biases can assist consumers in approaching information with a critical mindset. When individuals approach news with a focus on objectivity, they are better equipped to make informed judgements.

Embracing a holistic strategy to tackle disinformation entails providing extensive media literacy education. By learning critical analysis skills, individuals can scrutinise information sources and distinguish between trustworthy reporting and exaggeration. Media literacy is bottom-line for building societal resilience towards disinformation. Promoting critical thinking is essential in cultivating a society that challenges information instead of unquestioningly embracing it. This entails questioning and authenticating information rather than accepting it at face value. Useful techniques that can be adopted are cross-referencing different sources, verifying statements and exploring opposing viewpoints. Individuals play an imperative role in shaping a knowledgeable society by developing critical thinking skills. Understanding the relevance of individuals in shaping online conversation is pressing to encourage responsible use of social media. It is important to ensure the accuracy of information before distributing it and to be wary of clickbait headlines intended to grab attention. Additionally, reporting any false information to the platform administrators is crucial. All users need to take responsibility in combating the spread of misleading information.

Tackling the complex issue of disinformation necessitates a joint effort from authorities and the technology sector. Transparency and accountability are absolutely essential when it comes to regulations within the tech industry. By using technology responsibly and implementing explicit policies, we can establish a supportive environment that limits the dissemination of false information while still upholding our fundamental liberties. Finally, striking a balance between legal measures and the right to free expression is a vital and intricate task. Tackling the intentional dissemination of false information calls for well-crafted laws that differentiate between harmful disinformation and authentic expression. By finding a delicate equilibrium, we can safeguard democratic principles while minimising the detrimental effects of disinformation.

Online resources for information verification

Nowadays, numerous online efforts have emerged to make detecting disinformation easier. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) programs, such as Maltego, play a compelling role by offering practical tools to authenticate data. The SANS Institute defines OSINT as “intelligence produced by collecting, evaluating and analysing publicly available information with the purpose of answering a specific intelligence question”. OSINT is one of the best tools in dealing with disinformation. At the end of this article, the reader can find a carefully selected collection of helpful links to various resources. These include reliable fact-checking websites, educational platforms for improving media literacy, government resources on identifying disinformation, and OSINT websites.

Conclusion

To conclude, tackling disinformation is urgent for ensuring information accuracy and maintaining societal trust. People need to value and rely on evidence-based reasoning to combat the spread of conspiracy theories. It is vital to take a proactive approach to building a well-informed and resilient society.

Everyone must serve their part in fostering an online realm that values trust, honesty, and a dedication to truth. Once we go beyond the click, we can transform the narrative, which is a duty we all share. 

Appendix:
Credible fact-checking websites

—> https://www.snopes.com/

—> https://www.factcheck.org/

—> https://www.politifact.com/

—> https://www.bbc.com/news/reality_check

—> https://www.reuters.com/fact-check/

—> https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/

—> https://eufactcheck.eu/

—> https://www.opensecrets.org/news/tag/fact-check/

Educational platforms for media literacy

—> https://mediasmarts.ca/ (Canada)

—> https://www.commonsense.org/education (USA)

—> https://emels.eu/ (EU)

—> https://newslit.org/for-everyone/ (USA)

—> https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/KS3-KS4-secondary-news-media-literacy-resources/zfjgdnb (UK)

—> https://beinternetawesome.withgoogle.com/en_us (Google)

Government resources on recognising disinformation

—> https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/a224c235-4843-11ed-92ed-01aa75ed71a1/language-en (European Commission)

—> https://euvsdisinfo.eu/ (EU)

—> https://sharechecklist.gov.uk/ (UK)

—> https://www.esafety.gov.au/ (Australia)

OSINT Websites

—> https://www.bellingcat.com/ – known for investigative journalism using open source information

—> https://osintframework.com/ – a comprehensive resource providing various tools and resources for OSINT

—> https://visualize.news/ – a platform for open-source investigations, using visualisations to present data

—> https://www.metabunk.org/home/ – debunking myths and hoaxes, particularly in the realms of science, conspiracy theories, and misinformation

—> https://globalincidentmap.com/ -provides real-time incident data, including events related to terrorism, disease outbreaks, and other critical incidents

—> https://www.osintcombine.com/ – a curated collection of OSINT tools and resources, providing a centralised platform for investigators, journalists, and researchers to access relevant tools and information

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