How Can we Protect Ourselves Against Viral Deceptions

Adapted from Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics

With Trump out of office and suspended from Twitter, are we safe from online misinformation?

According to the Washington Post, online misinformation about election fraud dropped 73 percent a week after several social media sites suspended President Trump and key allies.

But even with Trump out of office and social media companies banning “alternative” sites such as Parler, we would be foolish to think the Internet is more trustworthy. Just as a week-long dip in new COVID-19 cases doesn’t mean we can stop protecting ourselves from the virus, so too we have to be vigilant against viral deception on line.

To protect ourselves, we need deliberate education in how to filter and process online information. Responding to the avalanche of misinformation in social media in the 2016 election, in 2017 several states passed laws promoting digital literacy. However, better schooling does not address the problem for adults.

Motivating adults to change their behavior requires two things:

1) Getting them emotionally invested into caring about the truth, and

2) Providing them with the tools to parse truth from falsehood.

Emotional investment needs to come before tools. We know that tools such as fact-checkers are available. But large majority of conservatives and a substantial portion of liberals do not engage in fact-checking, as evidenced both by polls and widespread sharing of viral deception.

So, what can you do to encourage others in your social media circles to adopt behaviors that can protect them from contracting and spreading viral deceptions? Changing social behavior is difficult, but not impossible. Think of the unfamiliar behaviors we have adopted to protect ourselves from the coronavirus even before the vaccine:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Social distancing
  • Frequent hand washing

How did we make these changes? First, people became emotionally invested in not contracting COVID-19. Signs everywhere, public service announcements, news articles and Internet memes all reinforced the message. Second, people became empathetically invested in not passing the disease on to others. Third, the new behaviors spread as others observed them in social situations and then learned about the reasons for the new behaviors. Fourth, governments, businesses and civil organizations made masks and social distancing mandatory, or at least strongly encouraged, and installed hand sanitizers everywhere inside their buildings.

How might these strategies translate into a campaign against viral deception – and how can you do your part?

  1. Become invested in not contracting viral deceptions. Develop a healthy skepticism of everything you encounter online. Acknowledge the online world is full of viruses. Basically, wear your skepticism online like an N-95 mask. Stay vigilant. Fact check new information. You can find a list of reliable fact checkers, and their code of principles at the Poynter Institute’s website. Make this part of your on-line health. Search out credible news sources with different perspectives. The best tool to help you develop safe practices is The Pro-Truth Pledge.
  2. Warn others about viral deception. Share your fact checking on social media. Correct misinformation with links to reliable sources. Of course, you have to be careful not to do this too aggressively, but rather encouragingly and respectfully. My 90-year-old father, for example, sometimes passes along viral deceptions with links in mass emails to his friends and family. I send gentle corrections, encouraging him to share the corrected info with his friends.
  3. Warn others about websites that are lax about viral deceptions. Social media providers are now more wary about promoting “fake news,” and platforms such as Facebook have easy ways you can report troublesome content. Use that option whenever you encounter viral deceptions. You can also send complaints to media sites that let viral deceptions fall through the cracks. When you discover such sites, warn your friends. Just like you would tell your friends not to frequent a restaurant where you got food poisoning, tell others to beware of sites that allow viral deception to thrive.

Of course, even in a pandemic, many people are going to resist safe practices, and will continue to be infected by viral deceptions. But so long as enough people practice these healthy behaviors, they will spread and thus create resistance to disinformation. And this is essential, as we have come to learn, for the preservation of democracy.

Please join the conversation. In the comments pane below, share what you practice in your personal online behavior to keep yourself and others safe from viral deceptions.

Tim Ward is a communications expert based in Washington DC. He is an executive board member of Intentional Insights (the organization that manages the Pro-Truth Pledge) and co-author, with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, of Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics.