Lately it seems that we are inundated with false, misleading, and harmful information, especially online. Researchers have called this “information pollution” because it is a problem that goes beyond so-called “fake news,” rumors, and conspiracy theories. And the false, harmful information we see so often can deepen divisions between people, fuel hatred, and undermine work that our communities are doing to create a more peaceful world.
While the problem of information pollution is enormous - and must be addressed systematically by policymakers, technology companies, media organizations, and educators - here is one simple thing you can do to cut down on the spread of bad information.
Do not repeat false information – even if your intention is to refute it. Instead, state the truth you want to share.
1. Mythbusting doesn’t work.
Instead of fact-checking or debunking bad information, make an affirmative statement of the truth. Repeating a false statement makes it more likely that people will remember it as true – no matter how well you refute it with evidence.
In any case, labeling something as untrue is unlikely to convince anybody. Instead, explain the truth and provide evidence. If you absolutely have to mention false information to debunk it, be sure to warn someone in advance that the information is not true before repeating it.
2. Don’t help bad information go viral.
A recent report showed how thousands of people were duped by a Twitter troll - who didn’t even exist. Thousands replied and retweeted the offensive tweets, trying to refute them. But the effect was the opposite. The account’s tweets got into thousands of people’s feeds, amplifying their messages.
Retweeting or Facebook-sharing a harmful post only highlights it, making it more likely to stick in people’s minds, which can seriously hurt vulnerable communities. Don’t retweet outrageous claims.
3. Ask questions and encourage others to ask questions as well.
Researchers have found that when you are correcting false or misleading information, it is beneficial to get people involved in generating counter-arguments. Use social media to crowd-source new ideas.
4. Facts matter – but they have to be embedded in stories.
A recent study found that facts actually can make an impression on people. But if the facts don’t fit into someone's existing worldview, a person tends to discount the facts when it comes to decision making. That’s why it can be more effective to share stories than to bombard people with facts.
Some ideas for how to do this: Follow writers, artists, thinkers, and activists who you admire, and share their stories. Uplift the voices of people most harmed by bad policies and false information. When you read a powerful story about human resilience in the face of adversity, share it with your friends.
Information pollution is a fact of how we live these days, and it won’t get better on its own. Along with seeking systematic solutions to this thorny problem, we can all work to bring more truth to our social networks by refusing to spread bad information.