Jason’s History Club discussed a provocative idea a few days ago regarding how to curb history misinformation: Don’t share links to news articles on social media.
Can we extend this same thinking to research as well? At first blush, sharing less information seems utterly opposed to the goals of openness. But is it really? Making information discoverable and accessible isn’t the same as promoting flaky science on Twitter. Is there a best practices line here between openness and promotion that we should define, in the interest of nurturing openness but at the same time not nurturing misinformation?
In the fight against disinformation online, we have a powerful tool in our toolbox
This week we held six online conversations about my new book History, Disrupted: five on Clubhouse and one on Twitter Spaces. (Want to listen to the podcast recordings? Click here, here, here, here, here & here.)
In each conversation I was asked for one concrete action we can take to stem the flow of misinformation and disinformation online. My response: don’t share links to news articles on social media.
This radical suggestion was met by agreement among some participants and skepticism and pushback from others. So, let me briefly pull on this thread in this week’s newsletter, laying the groundwork for future conversations on the subject.
A major theme throughout History, Disrupted is how and why social media incentivizes certain behaviors that lead to particular outcomes. Take virality, as one example. Because the media and social media ecosystems reward virality with influence—money, fame, power, and attention—they incentivize actors with an array of agendas to purposefully design content that will go viral. In my book, I devote an entire chapter to what I call, “the viral past,” a type of online content that uses information about history to send information virally through networks as a means to advance agendas. Those who can make the past go viral get rewarded by the news media and social media with power and influence; those who cannot never have their ideas reach a wider public, even if those ideas contribute meaningfully to public understandings of history.
In conversations this week, I argued that this is a flawed incentive structure. When people are rewarded for attention and not accuracy, the tail of gaining influence online can wind up wagging the dog of trying to discern with thoughtfulness and accuracy what may actually be occurring in the world—or, in the case of history, what may have actually occurred in the past. When we incentivize clicks, views and shares, the accuracy of information can become a secondary consideration. When virality becomes a pathway to power, actors who are fighting for power have shown that they will chase it at all costs. That can include political parties, corporate media, activists, and disinformation agents.
It is us, however, who collectively make this possible. Through the mass sharing of links to political news stories on our social media pages, we create the conditions for virality and misinformation to thrive. In essence, we do the work of the political parties, media companies, and disinformation agents for them, using our networks and weak ties to spread ideas from one cluster of social media users to another. In the case of political parties and corporate media who have millions, if not billions, of dollars at their disposal, we do this work for them without receiving any compensation. What we get is an emotion: a sense of virtue, a sense of outrage, an opportunity to champion our values or beliefs, or a feeling that we’ve contributed to pressing political debates. Sharing becomes an act of self-communication, communicating to our followers and friends where we stand on a particular issue. The past two decades have shown just how animating that desire to personify our virtues can be.
So, how do we begin to nip this in the bud? We stop sharing. Without our networks and connections, political news content cannot flow from one cluster of users to another. Without our networks and connections, the engine of virality loses its steam. Here is how I articulated it to Maceo Paisley in our conversation on Clubhouse this past Friday:
This approach, of course, raises numerous questions. How can we support journalists and journalism if not through sharing their articles on social media? (Ideas include subscribing to their publications, following particular reporters you appreciate, and hosting social audio discussions about items in the news on platforms such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.) Can we share links to other things on our social media pages? (Yes! Recipes, cat videos, and GoFundMe pages are examples of great things to share.) Will this stop all misinformation and disinformation? (No, but it might make a dent.) What if I really want to share news and political views with my family and friends? (There are other ways).
To the last point, email continues to be a very effective way to share news articles with friends and colleagues. My mother has been emailing me news articles since 2004. She does not have social media (thank goodness), but that has not prevented her from expressing her political views or participating actively in our democracy. Other forms of discourse are possible.
This is, obviously, a larger conversation that cannot be given justice in a single newsletter. But the conversation feels particularly urgent as the contours of Web 3.0 begin to take shape. If we look back on the past twenty years of Web 2.0, we can likely agree that it did not turn out to be the panacea it was initially promised. In part, that was because we were not as intentional or thoughtful as we needed to be about how social media would work, what incentive structures were being created, and what the effects might be on history, journalism, politics and democracy. Similar halcyon visions of Web 3.0 are currently being marketed to us, a future of the Web that feels both exciting and perilous. We must be intentional about designing the right incentives into these new platforms, lest we look back in twenty years and wish that we had. A radical re-thinking and re-examining may be required. Squashing the urge to share might be one of them.
Thank you’s & shout-outs
There are many people to thank for the amazing conversations and support of History, Disrupted this week, among them:
For those who ordered History, Disrupted: How Social Media & the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past on Amazon, you may have received an email this week saying that your shipment has been delayed. Apparently the book is temporarily out of stock; I guess we sold more copies than they were prepared for! The publisher is aware and printing more copies. You should receive an update soon on when the book will ship.
The book is also available through Barnes & Noble and at local independent book sellers, including Lost City Books in Washington, D.C. For those in the D.C. area, we’ll be having a book launch celebration at Lost City Books on January 7, 2022 at 7:30 p.m. More information to come.
Have a good week.
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I see your point, but the problem with treating “disinformation” as undefinable is that it concedes the absence of objective reality. Yes, both sides use it to accuse the other of lying, but in many cases it’s possible to determine that one side actually is making false statements, and that the false statements are made with the intent of convincing others to believe “facts” that are objectively false. (And, in many cases, to then use those false beliefs to justify actions in furtherance of an agenda that is untethered to the truth of the underlying statements.) To reduce that to “political name-calling” is a form of false equivalence.
(speaking only for myself)
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