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A game of broken telephone: Combatting misinformation and building trust

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

I would love to begin this column by saying “with the election behind us.” Yet, as of writing, the election is enduring endlessly, at least in certain quarters.

Despite near-universal consensus that Joe Biden is President-elect, President Donald Trump continues to erode the sanctity of the vote by falsely claiming election fraud. A poll from YouGov and The Economist shows that 82 percent of Republican voters believe him. That is deeply dangerous for democracy.

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Of course, we expected this quibbling and spread of misinformation. Mr. Trump has systematically eliminated trust in institutions since his 2016 campaign. His most effective tool has been the rampant misinformation he spreads, originating first in 2011 when he propagated the birtherism campaign against former President Barack Obama, helping cement his place in conservative politics.

On the campaign trail Mr. Trump’s misinformation epidemic polarized the country. Cries of “white-power” and “where’s your hood” replaced civilized notions of dialogue. Those shouting matches reflect how both halves of the electorate are living and breathing two distinct and juxtaposing realities. Journalist Anne Applebaum argued that Trump’s 2020 campaign was “an experiment in misinformation we have never seen before.”

Unprecedented problems require unprecedented solutions, as 2020 has shown. Biden needs to tackle misinformation as soon as he can if he plans to restore unity to the country. The lion’s share of responsibility, however, falls on people becoming “tougher customers,” as Pete Buttigieg puts it. If we are to minimize misinformation, we as the next generation need to rethink our relationship with information on social media — and the information economy in general.

Solutions for misinformation have largely targeted the digital sphere, where social media is a super-spreader for conspiracies and factual inaccuracies. One idea is the call for a culture of online information enforcement, in which “internet citizens” who are digitally literate and able to analyze sources engender information standards and tag fake posts.

Taiwan is a helpful model for such a vision. In dealing with misinformation from China, Digital Minister Audrey Tang has encouraged the creation of a tech “social sector,” in which citizens flag misinformation that needs fact-checking. Tang’s “radical transparency,” designed to make her governmental meetings viewable by and accessible to the public, has yielded promising results.

Another solution to curbing fake news is machine learning, which can distinguish a false narrative from a truthful one. Yet, the belief that more technology can solve a problem of technology is ill-founded. Despite the great technological advances made in machine learning, bad actors have found and will find ways to fool algorithms, and information silos creating weaponized narratives will be hard to stop.

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Being the most digitally literate generation, who have inherited a full-grown internet, we need to cut back the weeds that have come to dominate it and understand that more technology and growth are not a long-term solution, but instead one that those with ill intent will always outpace.

Another option is regulating social media, as was done throughout the 2020 election, to mixed results. Yet this step too cannot wholly solve the misinformation problem. Companies themselves profit from misinformation, meaning it would not be in their interest to impose regulations. The fact that they are tentatively doing so may indicate a growing sense of responsibility for their platforms, but more likely it is a self-interested move designed to preserve their reputation. Regardless, they will still face First Amendment complaints until our generation finds a comfortable answer to them, one that doesn’t allow for wanton cancellation but instead fair consequences for untrue speech.

In the end, the goody-two-shoes-sounding culture of digital citizenship presents benefits that the other solutions lack. It is more democratic, as cooperating citizens shape discussions. It can also utilize previous solutions such as machine learning, implementing helpful technology in a positive way. Ultimately, it can encourage trust among users.

How can we as Princeton students foster such a digital culture? We should first focus on ourselves and be more conscientious about where we get our information. Having seen an abundance of New Yorker totes across campus, the work we need to do is less about finding reliable news sources but instead diversifying our information diet. Like one of those “choose my plate” pictures, we should be picky and specific about what news sources we trust and what information we can verify, while also ensuring we don’t read solely from the same newspaper.

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We should also work to expose misinformation. Princeton students have already done this by tracing COVID-19 misinformation. The next step is to build up a community that allows for citizens to work together to stymie spews of suspicious stories. That could start as a Princeton club and snowball from there.

Yet the broader United States is far from ready for Tang’s vision of radical transparency. In education, the United States has fallen behind, and a lack of critical thinking skills creates vulnerability to faulty sources. Distrust and cynicism, too, make community building difficult. Fake news outlets may target the margins now, but advanced lie machines, which could pose as fake fact-checking sites or political accounts, would force even tech-savvy, knowledgeable users to verify nearly every source.

On the other side, over-regulating misinformation can lead to the suppression of factual information for self-serving reasons. If the body politic can’t agree on facts, debate is out of the question. Our first aim, then, should be to strive to preserve the factual truth.

The sustained attack against fact is gravely concerning not just for the United States, but for all democracies. The philosopher Hannah Arendt warned of it, claiming that lies create a dangerous cynicism, “an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.” Arendt wrote, “facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, and theories.”

“Once they are lost,” she continued, “no rational effort will ever bring them back.” If democracy has any hope of surviving in the information age, we must learn to stop picking up the phone when misinformation rings.

Ethan Magistro is a sophomore from Morristown, N.J. He can be reached at magistro@princeton.edu.

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