Everyone knows you shouldn’t feed a troll. But more than ever, you should go out of the way not to retweet, share or follow one, either.
First came the pandemic. Now we’re facing an infodemic. Misinformation from so-called trolls, bots and other online agitators is spiking about the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, following a tsunami of falsehoods about the coronavirus. And the people who care most intensely about those issues may be inadvertently spreading it further – a hard-learned lesson from social media meddling in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
To avoid being taken advantage of, we need to learn their ways – and learn some new techniques of our own to challenge what we see on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Reddit and Nextdoor. Whether you’re 16 or 60, spending a few seconds to do the things I list below can help keep you from becoming a tool in someone else’s information war.
Just in the last week, the hashtag #DCblackout was used to post false claims that authorities had somehow blocked protesters from communicating from their smartphones. It started with an account that had just three followers. And Twitter took down an account with violent rhetoric claiming to belong to a far-left-leaning national antifa organization that was actually linked to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.
As misinformation about the novel coronavirus continues to spread, here are some important tips to keep in mind when consuming news about the outbreak. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)
“We are acutely vulnerable in times like these, where there’s a fog of war situation,” says Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the art of disinformation. It’s a perfect storm: Americans are looking online for information about protests and the coronavirus, even as the pandemic keeps many of us at home, isolated from other sources.
Starbird learned from studying Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a major manipulator of social media around the 2016 election, how these groups turn people’s desires to be part of a movement against them. It starts with appealing messages that earn shares and follows, slowly building an audience. “They are echoing the things that we might care about, at first, to impersonate someone who might be like us – to try to become part of our group,” says Starbird. Only later do they reveal their true objectives.
“No matter how intellectual you think you are, no matter how savvy you think you are – for tech or anything else – you have been victimized by disinformation at some point,” says Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women.
In 2016 and 2017, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey retweeted a Russian account posing as a civil rights activist at least 17 times. Even I’ve fallen for “fake news” on Facebook about a very tumultuous airplane landing.
What do we call the people misleading us? “Russian…
Read More: You are probably spreading misinformation. Here’s how to stop.