At least 40 national elections will be held around the world this year, affecting billions of people. Illustration credit: Biscotto Designs/Shutterstock.com.
There is a “high risk” that mis- and disinformation will affect elections in some 40 countries around the world this year, according to media and political experts. Disinformation not only contributes to the erosion of trust in institutions but can also cause people to turn away from all information, leading to less-informed voters, according to political and disinformation researcher Carme Colomina. The rapid development and widespread availability of generative AI technologies have also increased the potential for more sophisticated and convincing election-related falsehoods.
Discuss: What factors made experts label 2024 as a “high-risk” year for misinformation affecting democracies? How much do you think misinformation and AI technologies will influence elections around the world? What could happen if voters make decisions based on false information? Does misinformation cause political polarization or does political polarization cause misinformation? Why?
What causes people to fall for misinformation? While the answer is complex, psychologist Lisa Fazio said one reason is because it’s appealing to the brain. False narratives can “provide simple answers for what’s wrong [in the world] and how they can fix it,” she said.
Psychologically speaking, a person who has internalized misinformation can correct their beliefs, but it’s difficult — especially if the falsehoods are closely tied to a person’s identity and emotions, Fazio said. Examining information, including where it comes from, and taking a pause when a social media post affects emotions are ways to prevent the spread the misinformation.
Idea: Watch the six-minute CBS News segment “How misinformation works on the brain, according to a psychologist” and discuss it as a class. Why do you think people fall for misinformation? What role do social media algorithms play in the spread of misinformation? Are there risks to simply being exposed to false claims, even if you remain skeptical of them? Why is it harder to correct misinformation when it’s closely tied to identity?
What young people consider to be “news” on Instagram may depend on how they feel, according to a new study by Dutch researchers who interviewed 111 Instagram users between the ages of 16 and 25. While young people in the group were mostly aware of characteristics of news, there was a significant gap between what they thought was news and what felt like news in their Instagram feeds. Some participants dismissed nearly everything on Instagram as not news while others came up with categories like “debatable” or “social” news to describe some posts. Others said that what counts as news is a personal determination, or anything that presents something novel. The researchers concluded that emotional considerations “are at least as important for users as their reasoned, cognitive arguments.”
Note: Though this study focused on Instagram, a Pew Research Center survey found that YouTube is the most popular platform for American teens — by far.
Discuss: Can you tell the difference between news and other types of media on social media? How? Why is it important to know what kind of information you’re looking at? What could happen if you mistake non-news content (such as ads or propaganda) for news?
NO: This video does not show underwater footage from an earthquake that hit Japan on Jan. 1, 2024. YES: The video shows an undersea tremor from an earthquake in November 2023 in the Banda Sea off the coast of Indonesia. YES: The earthquake that hit Japan destroyed buildings, left tens of thousands without power and killed more than 160 people.
NewsLit takeaway: Natural disasters elicit strong emotions and prompt a spike in public curiosity, making them an easy target for purveyors of misinformation, who misleadingly use genuine photographs and videos from previous events. This is a particularly popular trend among engagement bait accounts, or social media accounts whose primary purpose is to elicit clicks and views. Here are two methods you can use to detect, or better yet, avoid, these deceptive posts.
Check the source. Standards-based news outlets aren’t perfect, but they have policies and procedures to verify the authenticity of visuals before they publish them. Erroneous visuals are exceedingly rare in news coverage from reputable outlets.
Use reverse image search. Plugging an image (including a screenshot of a video) into a reverse image search engine, such as Google Images, TinEye or Yandex, is a quick way to determine the original context.
NO: This is not a genuine photo of former President Donald Trump and the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on a private plane. YES: It is an AI-generated image. NO: This is not a genuine photo of former President Barack Obama and his family on Little St. James, Epstein’s private Caribbean island. YES: It is a doctored photo of an Obama family vacation in Hawaii with a distinctive building from Epstein’s island added to the background. NO: Prominent television host Jimmy Kimmel was not named in the court documents related to Epstein that were released in two batches on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4. YES: This screenshot of text is a fake, created to match the appearance of the actual documents.
NewsLit takeaway: As a court prepared to release documents related to Epstein, purveyors of disinformation played into the guilt by association fallacy and conjured up falsehoods that appeared to link various celebrities and politicians to him. Furthermore, these false claims were spread in the days and hours leading up to and immediately following the documents’ release, when many people were expecting news that could harm or expose particular political figures or celebrities. This kind of anticipatory environment is ripe for exploitation by bad actors: people are impatiently scrolling their feeds, seeking information and subconsciously looking to confirm their biases. This makes fabrications and baseless claims easy to push and quick to spread.
The Gateway Pundit, a far-right conspiracy website, published at least 40 pieces last year pushing baseless claims about 2020 voter fraud in Muskegon, Michigan. The false stories didn’t provide any evidence, but they did provide a spike in site traffic that reached 1.5 million, more than double the previous month.
Deepfake audio will affect the election and X (formerly Twitter) is going to disappear by the end of this year, according to 2024 predictions by MediaWise director Alex Mahadevan in this Poynter column.
Chinese disinformation in Taiwan — including a bogus narrative about the government harvesting blood from Taiwanese citizens to make an American bioweapon — is spreading ahead of Taiwan’s next election.
Florida’s surgeon general has a history of amplifying COVID-19 vaccine misinformation — and has now called for their use to be halted altogether, citing … misinformation.
The newsletter platform Substack allows Nazis to publish and monetize posts — but there’s mounting pressure from users to remove extremist content.
“The media” is an easy target for people to blame their frustrations on, but this rundown of impactful local journalism in every state last year underscores the important role that news organizations play in protecting the public’s interest.
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