Dealing with Disinformation Using School Lessons

Digital citizenship is the idea that you are both entitled to rights that relate to a safe, fully accessible digital experience when engaging with the internet and digital technologies, and that in engaging with these you recognise that you undertake a set of responsibilities to ensure your activities are not encroaching on the rights and access of others to those same digital spaces and tools.

Disinformation is not a new problem – propaganda, lies and distorted truths are ingrained in societies across the world. The advent of the internet, however, makes it harder at times to separate fact from fiction, and often makes dissemination much easier to a larger potential audience. Luckily, you already have a number of the skills required to identify disinformation and tackle it- you learned them at school.

English

Close reading, or analysing texts for similes, metaphors, hyperbole set you up with the questions for probing questions. Why did the author choose this word? What connotations does this word have? What is the author implying here? When I fill in the gaps, what does this character really mean? Considering the wider context of the piece – when it was written, who by, what is happening in the world around the author, how it’s received, the themes it focuses on – all helps to understand the author’s motivations and underlying ideology. From here, you can make an informed decision as to whether you agree with or believe the content you’re dealing with.

Maths

If I never hear ‘Show your working’ one more time, it’ll be too soon. However, it’s a life lesson that many forget – jumping from Point A to Point Q without explicitly showing the in-between steps that helped you get there. Figuring out the paths people take from a piece of evidence to the supposed implications or a claim their making helps to uncover the hidden ideologies, biases or twisting of facts. So, next time someone suggests something scary or shocking, stop and think about the iterative steps they took to get from Evidence to Claim.

History

The validity of sources is something we cannot underestimate. History teachers impress upon high schoolers how Wikipedia alone cannot help you write your essays – you need to go to the experts and read the well-researched history books to get a fuller picture. Wikipedia is crowdsourced and not necessarily fact-checked (although I actually love Wikipedia). It’s a fine first step, but even Wikipedia backs up its claims with a references list. Think about primary and secondary sources as well: diary entries and video clips of speeches are much more reliable (at times) to understand what someone thought of a particular topic than (mis)quotes in a newspaper or a Facebook post. History also serves as a reminder that much of what is happening now has happened before – look to the past to learn for the future.

Philosophy

There are many different ways to see the world. You might not remember exactly what ontology and epistemology are, but you may remember the Brain in a Jar discussion. What we know and how we know it is entirely dependent on the beliefs we have about what truth is, and how it can be proven.

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Cultural differences offer a variety of lenses with which to understand a gesture or piece of evidence. Taking the time to understand the motivations, ideology and cultural implications of a claim for one person or community can help to unravel tensions and debunk fearmongering.

Sciences

Forcing potato cells to burst through a microscope might not seem like it’s useful for disinformation, but experiments and questions lead to answers (and more questions). The complexity of a potato’s cell walls is immense, so how could we expect any aspect of human interaction to be any less so? Nothing is ever as simple as Just Because. Physics can explain gravity and Chemistry has a table of elements to explain the makeup of the world. These are not simple concepts. They take time to understand, to make sense, and even after studying them you can get lost sometimes. There is so much we don’t know yet about the natural world. People study their whole lives and never resolve the questions.

Physical Education

Improvement takes practice. Ensuring your digital health requires checkups sometimes, and even in individual sports you need a team of other people around you – coaches and physical therapists – to ensure you’re in the best shape you can be and don’t hurt yourself. Tackling disinformation is similar: you’re not alone in trying to figure out whether the latest claim is legit or an angle to sow seeds of doubt and disruption. Your family, friends and communities can help you from falling foul of disinformation. And supporting others through unravelling disinformation (while not always easy or welcomed) takes stamina, so you need to look after yourself during the process.

You already have the skills necessary to engage critically with news articles, government speeches, viral tweets or memes forwarded to you on WhatsApp. Recognise the patterns, evaluate the sources, come to your own conclusions. Don’t rely on others to do the work for you. Share your working and remember that there are others who are doing the same, you’re far from alone here.

Social media exposed

I deactivated my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts a few weeks back and it has been nothing short of liberating. Big statements are required for big feelings.


On reflection, much of my discomfort with social media of late has boiled down to one feeling – exposed. The exposure and consequent being watched. Twitter doesn’t have exactly the same effect because I use it in different ways. Yes, there’s personal information, but there are also more professional connections, academic connections, educational and activist resources – all formatted to springboard me to websites and read longform articles in a far more intuitive way than Instagram, and said articles appear on Twitter for me far more frequently than they did on my Facebook timeline.

Pre-defined visibility

If you have ever posted a photo that only got 3 likes and wondered why that could be when the rest of your posts consistently get 50+, only to become accustomed to posting at certain times of the day in the hope of getting more likes, you have met the invisible monster called the Algorithm. Toiling away in the background, this set of code brews anxiety in social media managers and regular users alike. Rather than update your newsfeed or timeline from Newest Post to oldest, the developers of social networking sites have developed algorithms that use your app/website activity to determine which types of content are more likely to interest you, and therefore keep you onsite.

Not only are they using your behavioural data to feed your brain’s dopamine addiction through cat videos and the meme accounts you interact with the most, the developers have created collateral damage in our ability to navigate social relations. That sounds a bit arsey and heavy, but bear with me.

Have you ever caught yourself wondering why so-and-so hasn’t liked your latest pic? Or gotten frustrated that the same handful of accounts always appear first on your feed? You can thank the algorithm for that. The only way to change is to engage differently – commenting and bookmarking and sharing posts from other accounts more frequently. But this then forces your hand; twisting your arm and pushing you to engage with content in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. While nice for the poster, it’s not fair to manipulate behaviours (more than the algorithm already does, given its proclivity for liking video content – i.e. long-form content designed to keep you watching, scrolling, clicking for longer and increasing the likelihood you’ll see an ad and interact with it).

And we haven’t even begun to get into the inherent biases built into these algorithms. Biases passed on from human to computer, with oppressive results. Black bodies are censored, go unrecognised, are categorised incorrectly. It’s wrong and it’s gross and it’s unavoidable while those with the power refuse to pay more than lip service to right these painful wrongs.

So, yeah. The algorithm manipulates, is manipulative. It pre-determines your experience, uses your behavioural data against you to show you more of what it thinks you want to see, boosts ads and paid content ahead of the accounts you actually follow and is biased against communities of minorities because it amplifies existing biases in out society into codified digital commands.

The pressure to perform

This mostly relates to Instagram, but I know Facebook can be a toxic cesspool of one-upmanship and preening.

Instagram has become (or, more accurately, always has been) a space to highlight. To show off. To share the prettiest, most perfect snapshots of oneself. Which is just so false – life is anything but. Life is gritty, messy, unpredictable, unphotogenic, weird, wonderful, bold and muted and mellow and loud and quiet and joy and hurt and everything at once and none of those things at all. Life is so much bigger than a photo and while photos are sometimes worth a thousand words, there are other times where those thousand words are more meaningful. Or even 5 would do.

Our online personas or avatars are versions of ourselves. They can’t be our full selves because we are never all of ourselves at once – the selfs we perform online are just some of the things that we are. Maybe we’re funny or artsy or hot or dumb or confrontational or some combination of parts of ourselves that we translate online. But that means sometimes we’re performing. Posting landscapes from the loo or throwbacks to decadent dinners while eating cheerios for tea. And I’m sick of the mismatch, the disconnect and the bald faced lies. I’m not going to post photos of me smiling with brushed hair and a pretty necklace when I’ve spent the day sobbing. Desperate for validation through numeric associations with acceptability and posting at The Right Time. I was doing that. It was making me more miserable. It’s not what I want to do anymore.

I won’t perform and I won’t share the smiliest, shiniest, sharpest parts of myself, filtered or not. It’s just not how I want to be thought of. When people think of me, I want them to think of our last interactions, not the dinner I posted on my Insta Story last night. So I’ve quit my Instagram bad habits cold turkey. No more smoke and mirrors hiding how I really am or what I’m really doing. No more putting on a face or showing the Insta-worthy aspects of my life. Because they’re all capturable, but I don’t want to live my life through a lens for other people’s screens.

Power down the spotlight, I don’t want it on me on there any more.

Empty engagement

What does a Like mean? How much social or emotional weight can we realistically attribute to the press of a button? Can we build relationships from swipes, views, reactions and replies?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but at the heart of them lies the niggling feeling that my relationships online cannot be cultivated with the same authenticity or mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations as those developed offline with digital tools as a supplementary avenue for brief contact.

Yes, I believe meaningful relationships can start and grow online. Much of my contact with my boyfriend in the early stages was through social media as I navigated the end of my degree and start of my internship. But I think somewhere along the way I, and a lot of people around me, forgot that online life and AFK existence are linked, not separate – but they’re not a replacement for one another either.

Manipulative by design

Ignoring the pure manipulation of the algorithms that rank content for our timelines, I take major issue with the guilt and shame built into these apps’ design.

The infinite scroll design is problematic – its creator publicly apologises for designing it and recognises the problems with it and our understanding of consumption/overindulgence. Infinite scroll makes it hard to find the information you want because it’s not as easily searchable. It means you can’t just hit the Back button too if you want to return to a post you were looking at previously (on Instagram, anyway). And we don’t need any more

Another aspect of manipulative design is the language used on these apps and how they distort our framing of their purpose. Facebook Friends are not your close pals. Followers don’t require preaching to or proof as to why they should stay. Comments don’t necessarily denote positive engagement and Bookmarking for later doesn’t really hold the same promise you’ll return to the page like it does in a physical book. When Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?”, it suggests that the hundreds of people who follow you are the right audience to divulge personal matters or your inner-most thoughts. The reaction buttons can be misconstrued like any emoji (although I noticed on Messenger you can now react with any emoji, that’s a new update and it’s a slight improvement), but how much meaning can a few pixels denote? They aren’t meaningful out of context – they cannot replace communication. A laughing face doesn’t tell someone you miss them, a heart is no long-term replacement for saying I Love You. And yet, we are using them instead of saying what we mean. Exactly what we mean. To the people we mean to say it too.

There’s a strand of attention-seekers on Facebook who follow a formulaic pattern along the lines of a Facebook status or photo upload about being scorned

That’s the last time I trust someone with the personal stuff, every time I try I just get burned. And you can post your nastiness all you want, but you’re the one no one wants to spend time with

random Facebook person, probably

Now, when you check the Comments section, it’ll be filled with people asking “Are you okay?“, or declaring “You don’t need them” and promising “I’m here if you need me“. Rarely will people outright ask “What’s going on“, but invariably the response will look something like “I’ll PM you“. Interest is piqued by the onlookers who are outside the realms of this skirmish – because the secrecy adds to drama and drama is delicious. And so, the Original Poster (OP) gets exactly what they want – attention from those who will engage, and a secondary audience of mildly (or wildly) intrigued acquaintances who will at least be tempted to do a deep dive to uncover the source of all this. Making these things public not only brings strangers into your business, but it robs us of the opportunity to strengthen relationships by reaching out and explicitly asking for support.

Asking for support is hard. It’s vulnerable, it’s scary, it can be emotionally exhausting and it’s not always rewarding. But it’s such a vital cornerstone of relationships and social media is offering us ways around it. And in doing so, social media robs us of an important vulnerability. Changing our experience of vulnerability from intimate conversations and soul-bearing to public displays of frustration, anger, despair makes a show, a circus of our hurt and steals much-needed empathy from those who are in pain. It’s so easy to roll your eyes at the kinds of post I’m describing when it’s on your timeline sandwiched between holiday pics and calls to action around community politics. It’s much harder to scoff at the disappointment and upset when it’s in your DMs or on the other side of the table in the coffee shop.

I believe this is just one more way in which the design of these apps and websites is developed to change our behaviours, siloing our experiences in a cacophony of digital echo chambers filled with shouting and showing off. And it’s having a catastrophic impact on how we relate to one another.

The personal data thing

I highlighted it at the start, but it’s worth reiterating. I wasn’t comfortable with the quantity of data these organisations were collecting about me. Nor was I comfortable knowing that they use, sell and manipulate that data to meet capitalist ideals I fundamentally disagree with. I don’t trust Facebook or the upper management who run it. I don’t want them owning my photos or knowing I watch certain videos. Data and privacy are issues so much more important than we ever give the time for because they’re big and conceptual and messy, but they’re also not. And I was tired of compromising myself and my values.

This isn’t without its problems for my professional life. My research focuses on social media. My work requires I stay up to date on the latest developments and exist there in some capacity. I’ve drawn more concrete boundaries – using work accounts, soon I’ll have a work phone, eventually I’ll stop using my laptop for anything that isn’t personal stuff altogether. These steps are as much for my sanity as they are for separating the personal data from professional stuff. Mixing the two is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s easier to avoid the temptation of scrolling or making myself miserable seeing shinier lives when the accounts I’m connected to don’t share those kinds of content.

Leaving technology behind

I’m not going off the grid. It’s impossible, for one thing, but I don’t want to either. I still have my Twitter account. I still have my blog. In some ways I’m less choosy about who sees my posts and in others I’m more particular about who I share my innermost thoughts with. This is a constant learning journey – as the tech evolves, as I grow, as the world changes – the goalposts will keep moving. Addressing my social media use has left me feeling less exposed, less vulnerable, more in control. I’m sure that will change.

For now, though, I’m enjoying the lack of feeling weighed down by the implications of two small icons, one pink and one blue.

Social media echo chambers

If you don’t already follow Jaylene Mbararia on Instagram, you’re missing out. Sharing sustainable fashion and anti-racism content, she’s thoughtful (which makes sense, given she’s studying Philosophy at Edinburgh Uni), insightful and writes accessible, thought-provoking captions on her Insta posts.

In a recent post she discussed some of her thoughts on echo chambers, mentioning the role social media can play in sustaining echo chambers and considering what she – and the rest of us – could do to anticipate the problems that come with staying inside our bubbles.

I wrote this in reply:

I really appreciate you talking about this! I think echo chambers are one of the biggest pitfalls of social media – these apps box us in and we’re trained to not look beyong our own boundary wall (in this case, the people we follow and the app we’re viewing their content on). It leads to difficulty finding different opinions or even just fact checking what we’re “learning” (bc how much can you learn about a complex issue from 10 squares of text?). The way we use the apps, and maybe the way they apps’ own design, makes it an effort to expand our horizons/knowledge because it means removing ourselves from where we are to actively seek out new info in a different place, eg an internet browser. It requires a lot of intention for an activity many of us – myself included – engage in to dissengage or passively scroll without retaining the infor we pat ourselves on the back for “learning”. So we only take what we see at face value and expect everyone else to be consuming the same content as us because we’re all on the same platforms. Don’t ya love the algorithm?  🙃  It’s hard to find any real, sustainable balance – I look forward to seeing how you continue approaching this!

Yes. I commented that entire essay. I did also apologise after when I realised how long it was. But I meant what I said and I wanted to expand on a few points, namely app design and user intention.

Firstly, let’s consider app design. Did you know that the developer who created the code which allows for infinite scroll, Aza Raskin, has apologised for doing so? And every time someone mentions that fact on Reddit, he pops up again to apologise once more? Yup – he recognises the detrimental impact of endless scrolling on websites and apps. So we need to consider what else about the design of these apps and websites we use – intentionally or unintentionally – are problematic for us in how we connect, learn and exist digitally.

When I wrote about misinformation on social media, I made this point:

An issue with social media information sharing is the platform’s inability to fact-check. You usually have to leave the platform to check out the facts.

The point I was making here and in my reply to Jaylene’s post about app design is this: we are lazy by design; the apps have trained us to not want to go elsewhere to check the info we’re consuming. Instagram, for example, has an in-built browser to open links you click in profile website sections or Story Swipe Ups. This browser function limits you to the URL you were signposted to, unless it has further URLs or hyperlinked content you can click on to take you to a new page. You’ll be able to open said URL in a new browser tab by clicking the wee button in the top right corner, but you cannot change the URL like in a normal browser.

We are extraordinarily trusting and mistrusting in the strangest ways when it comes to internet interaction. We faithfully accept infographics without checking their sources. We dutifully retweet anonymous quotes and political commentary from pals and big names alike. We consume content by the gigabyte without questioning the context, accuracy or implications – resharing and repeating the cycle. Simultaneously, we use these methods to disseminate ideas and critique of governments, organisations, peoples, and policies which we don’t trust are acting in The Right Way or Our Best Interest, based on the limited information presented in a square filled with serif font.

Interesting, no?

Full disclosure: I have uninstalled the Twitter and Facebook apps, in part, to ensure I would continue researching things and opening yet another tab on my browser to check out the article or Wikipedia page about a term I’m not familiar with. I was also just losing too much time to the apps, and this way I don’t scroll for as long on my phone. So Instagram is my personal bug-bear, hence my focus primarily on Insta. But much of this is applicable to Twitter, Facebook and probably TikTok too. I’ll revisit TikTok activism at a later date because I find it so gosh darn INTERESTING. Anyway.

I also focus on Instagram because its design and functionality are the least accessible for information sharing. And while that is an unintentional design flaw – the app wasn’t created for community learning or grassroots activism – it doesn’t mean that Instagram shouldn’t be addressing the issues. For example, gatekeeping Swipe Up links for big followings serves no purpose except, I imagine, its financial motivation for Instagram; it will be very difficult for non-bot accounts to generate such a large following without engaging in advertising in some way (thereby paying Instagram for reach and visibility).

I’ve talked a little in a previous blog post about why I use social media. Intention is becoming such a buzzword, bandied around without real engagement with its meaning and watered down until it’s little more than a performative statement of wooly promise and encouragement lacking any grasp of its purpose. Yeah, I have feelings about this – what gave me away?

In a recent blog post, I highlighted some steps you can take to integrate awareness and scrolling with intention into your social media app use. I mentioned the importance of curating your following to maintain a healthy relationship with the app – and the people you’re following. To expand on that, I think it’s important to have a carefully chosen list of accounts to follow. However, I recognise the potential for creating echo chambers. It’s a seemingly impossible double-edged sword. You follow who you follow because you’re interested in their content, but that interest and connection often leads to a homogenous, less expansive collection of ideas than you would get by following people you had nothing in common with and whose views you fundamentally disagree with. How you manage that balance is personal and I’m still figuring it out for myself so please share your tips if you have them.

But that’s why I also advocate for stepping outside the lines of these apps and engaging in education and community elsewhere. It’s important to not get all our news from platforms where we’re less likely to see content that doesn’t fit our personal preferences mold (like IG), and to look further afield for variety in analysis and commentary. Instagram gives you the starting point, now use those keywords and buzz phrases to start your Google search. Twitter is hardly perfect, but at least the barriers to content access aren’t there, even if that means there’s insufficient barriers to protecting yourself from harmful content/trolls/misinformation/inflammatory baiting.

Intentional use of social media is going to be crucial to mend our relationships with both technology and each other. Our over-reliance on social media for our news cycles (because we Don’t Trust the BBC or Channel 4 or The Guardian or The Times because they have [insert leftist/right-wing/centrist/socialist/other] agendas and we instead rely on our Politics and International Relations graduate friend and that funny guy on Twitter for political commentary and The True Facts. I’m being facetious because I’ve been there. Conspiracy is alluring. Power-wielding entities like governments do have the ability to sway headlines. Rupert Murdoch’s financial gain relies on outrage and outright lies. The frustration is understandable and widely lamented – on social media. Yay for building community through injustice.

But social media should not be the sole stop in your education journey. Did you buy all those books you were recommended during the latest surge of Black Lives Matter protests? Did you buy any? Did you check out the documentaries? Did you reflect on your personal situation and how systems of oppression might exist in them? Did you decide on some actions you could take to dismantle those systems, or address the homophobic things your pals say? Did you ask your colleague if they wanted to chat about salaries and empowering them to demand equal pay and financial recognition for work done beyond the scope of their job description?

If you said YES to all, or any, of those things – congratulations. You are putting in the work to break cycles of oppression and injustice, while expanding your learning and (hopefully) empowering those in your communities who have less power. The onus is on us all to actively engage in our news consumption, education and personal development. To step outside our comfort zones and past the barriers of in-app browsers. To quieten the echo of our digital chambers and offer ourselves different perspectives so we might make our own decisions based on the information we have.

Scrolling with intention

Are you scrolling to connect? Or to switch off?

You can’t do both at once. Not meaningfully, anyway. Your relationship with your social media apps will be different from anyone else. The pressures, joys, frustrations – they’ll all vary. There are some things you can do, though, to create a healthier interaction with the apps and, by extension, other people.

Identify your motivation

We all love scrolling mindlessly on a lunch break, of an evening, maybe while we’re supposed to be getting on with work that has a deadline looming over us and the pressure is too much so please just let me escape via the adventures and filtered views of other people’s less stressful lives please.

But if that’s the case, you can’t consciously commit to learning new things via educators, content creators, or your friends. You brain isn’t going to retain the information you consume. Are you going to consider it a win because you liked or shared a post about a Big Issue, despite not taking time to actively reflect on what you’ve learned or what you might want to look into next?

Curate your consumption

Instagram is curation central. Whether you post to the grid 3 at a time to maintain satisfying rows of similar colour palettes, use the same filters to edit every image for that chic filtered-not-filtered aesthetic – you’re actively considering the organisation of your images. Use that skill and apply it to your Following list and your Saved pics.

Routinely checking on your Most and Least Interacted With accounts might help you understand which accounts you’re actually benefitting from following. Checking the accounts that have appeared most frequently in your timeline and asking yourself if their content is what you want to be seeing on the reg will help you lessen any frustration or sadness from seeing content that doesn’t benefit you. Liberally use the Mute button – you can mute Stories, grid posts or both. Of course, there’s a line with building an echo chamber that only serves you up squares of pretty confirmation bias, but it’s important to be aware of whose content you’re seeing and how it makes you feel.

You’re bookmarking resources, holiday destinations, outfit pics, dinner inspo and cute animals to bombard your boyfriend with later in the hopes he’ll agree it is actually the right time to get a pet (just me?). How often are you going back through those saved pics you bookmarked? How easy is it to find the educational resources you bookmarked intending to go back and read all 10 slides when you didn’t have that deadline/were feeling more energised for learning? Create different buckets for different content types. I have an Antiracism bucket, a Pole bucket, a PhD bucket, and an Interiors bucket.

I still need to go through my main All Saved set and create more themed sets so it’s easier to find things. But it means that on days where I have the time and energy to spend on some learning, I can go back through the bookmarked posts; learning, reflecting and then researching some more into the topics I’m learning about.

Time out

Have you tried setting a timer for the length of time you can spend on an app in a day? I did, and then found myself logging in via an internet browser to circumvent my own system without adding to the timer. That’s when I truly realised my habit was more problematic than I had been willing to admit.

The thought of No Phone Days gives me anxiety. What if there was a catastrophe? What if someone desperately needed to get in touch? What if… I ~missed something~? So I don’t have No Phone Days, just No Phone time. I am trying to leave my phone in my drawer while I’m working so I don’t end up scrolling through Insta for 20 minutes and ruin a good mood.

I’m practicing asking myself “Do I need to be doing this?” while I’m in mindless-scroll phase. If it turns out that I don’t need to be scrolling, I exit the app and place my phone, screen down, beside me – or in the drawer. There’s so much time I am claiming back – now I’m getting into the habit of reading for enjoyment’s sake (something I struggle to do with my PhD reading being so brain-intensive). Physical barriers and distance will help map your scrolling habits. It might be an affronting realisation, it might not. Either way, at least you’ll know and be adding more intention to your scrolling time.

Beyond the grid

You can’t do all your learning via Instagram. There isn’t enough nuance, context or scope. It’s a great starting point, it’s a useful way to bring attention to issues that people aren’t aware of or engaging with meaningfully. It’s not the start and end of your education. But you already know this. So why not practice asking yourself whether Instagram posts are where you should be learning about the issues you’re educating yourself on. Or whether you should be heading to the internet to find documentaries, podcasts, websites, books, news articles, or whatever other medium you best engage with, to expand your knowledge.

Intention in your scrolling is so important. If you’re scrolling to switch off, don’t even think about ticking your Educated Myself box on the To Do list. It’s disingenuous and it does nobody any favours. There’s nothing wrong with switching off when you’re scrolling – if it’s done in a healthy way that doesn’t leave you feeling depressed or with the impulse to engage in unnecessary behaviours ( e.g. shopping fast fashion or ignoring government advice on staying safe during the global pandemic, as a chill couple of examples).

Healthy habits

These are just some ideas you can try integrating into your social media activity. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it necessarily going to work for you. Our relationships with social media apps being so personal means our intentional engagement will look different person to person. But who cares about what anyone else is doing, as long as it works for you.

Scrolling through social media apps with intention, whether that be to actively engage or to switch off, is the key to a healthier relationship with the people we connect with through the platforms, and our expectations of the ways our interactions will make us feel and behave. There’s no right or wrong here – only harm reduction ideas to keep you healthy as you consume content online.

Misinformation on social media

We hear the word a lot – misinformation. We hear about its pervasiveness on social media even more. But what does misinformation mean? What are the implications of misinformation on social media platforms? Why does misinformation pose such a threat elsewhere?

I think I should start by saying that I HATE the euphemistic term misinformation. It’s misleading. It suggests it’s misinformed. That’s what the prefix mis- tends to preclude in English words. Some lack of intention or lesser harm. Far less insidious than, say, lies or deceit. But that’s exactly what misinformation is. It’s false data or information. I do wonder why those who coin the terms for these things might have settled for misinformation. As much as I hate to admit it, I find Fake News to be a more appropriate term – it at least highlights a problematic nature with the news that has been falsified; fake connoting some undesirable quality (think of how fake is used to deride or negatively frame, for example, people, tanning products, vegan meat substitutes). Like most things, I’m finding the need to use literal language to avoid minimising or trivialising the issue. As fun and creative as figurative language is, it often results in dampening the urgency or gravity of a situation. We need to call these instances of false information what they are, not only to highlight them as a problem but to consider why they are occurring with what appears to be exponential frequency and danger. In other words, where is this happening with the intention of lying and consequently causing harm?

On social media, misinformation largely refers to articles shared by users which are not factually accurate. An issue with social media information sharing is the platform’s inability to fact-check. You usually have to leave the platform to check out the facts. For several reasons, we have grown to take our social media information at face value, not going off-platform to research the claims of clickbaity headlines, Tumblr conversations or curiously images with blocks of text lacking any references. Despite the dubious nature of these items, we still feel compelled to believe them – because why would anyone lie?

We know, however, that this flaw in our social media use is absolutely used against us. Carole Cadwalladr presented evidence of the Brexit campaign’s misinformation use in Facebook ads which undoubtedly influenced many people’s decisions in the vote. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently applauded for her targeted questioning of Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook’s lack of fact-checking capabilities on political ads, despite evidence of political ads publishing blatant lies and doctored statistics to influence voting in the last election.

Facebook has recently implemented fact checking on some posts where the information is queried so users can be reassured or dissuaded from sharing posts. But Facebook is one platform – the issue goes much further.

Instagram in particular has become a hub for educational resources (I recently wrote about some of the issues I have with knowledge sharing on social media). Anyone can access Canva and create aesthetically pleasing images with text in funky fonts, make reasonably argued claims and publish them for the world to share and repost without any investigation. Without a large enough audience, it’s impossible to include Swipe Up links in Instagram Stories to direct people to further reading or resources. We all get a website URL we can use, but how many people actually click through? Part of the problem is the functionality of Instagram forces users to exit the app if they want to find more information on a topic – user psychology predicts that people would rather stay in-app and keep scrolling. That’s why Instagram created a web browser experience for Swipe Up links that doesn’t require you to jump to another app like Chrome; it happens within Instagram itself. We’ve been conditioned by these apps’ design to expect information to be brought to us, not for us to go out seeking it. And who would prefer to switch apps (a clunky user experience at the best of times) when they could take the easy route and keep scrolling to find other aesthetically pleasing grid pic with big statements in bold font.

Of course, there’s also the issue of referencing and sources for these educational content squares. While many educators and content creators do reference and acknowledge where information comes from, transparency is difficult to maintain on platforms like Instagram. Largely because they weren’t built for this use – although Insta HQ devs could definitely tackle this problem if the company’s owners (Facebook) cared enough.

WhatsApp is another platform – whether you consider it inherently *social media* or not – that we need to think about. Communities globally use WhatsApp in different ways, but group chats are a common feature across the world. And in these group chats, you often see viral content shared and repurposed. But WhatsApp has no feature for fact-checking or flagging misinformation before the content is forwarded to another chat. And with its perceived distance from the internet/Google Chrome, are we even less likely to leave the app and check out the claims of a meme or supposedly screenshotted image of advice from an unnamed doctor who advises drinking lots of water will dissolve COVID-19 and save our immune systems?

So what can we do to combat misinformation on social media?

Firstly, we can be more conscious of the information we’re consuming and think more critically about what it’s telling us. This isn’t really anything new – people have been sceptical of The Media (namely newspapers, more recently the BBC) and the biases or skewed perceptions they have portrayed of certain issues, especially as they relate to governments and powerful companies or individuals. We can definitely apply this scepticism (while avoiding falling down a full on conspiracy rabbit hole) to social media content, particularly paid ads or sponsored content. However that puts the onus on us as users, which, in my opinion, errs on the side of victim blaming; “It’s your responsibility to stay vigilant of your surroundings and whose content you consume” has echoes of “Don’t walk home by yourself to avoid being attacked” and other harmful rhetorics laid at the feet of victims of rape culture.

Instead, you can push content creators to include more transparency in sharing their sources. Gently remind your friends who keep sharing posts without any evidence to back up claims that they should be fact-checking before hitting the Share button. For ads or content that looks suspicious, report it to the platform; put the onus on them to improve their safety mechanisms. There are regularly petitions circulating to push the Government to regulate social media platforms (especially around political advertising) – sign those petitions.

I realise that these are still actions you have to take, but they don’t focus on policing your own actions or force you to keep yourself safe, instead they bring others into the conversation to tackle this issue from a number of angles. This multi-angle approach is crucial if we’re going to see any real change for the better when it comes to tackling the deluge of false information spreading through social media.

Being aware and having your eyes wide open is really important here. It’s exhausting; it’s tedious; it’s infuriating when you realise just how flawed so many of these systems are. Those aren’t reasons to remain complacent. The information is there. The proof of lies being spread via social media is abundant. We have a duty as digital citizens and as app users to take ownership of our own media consumption, and by extension, our exposure to education and information gathering.

EDITED ON 13TH AUGUST TO ADD
The BBC published a news article on 12th August 2020:‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 misinformation.

At least 800 people died around the world because of coronavirus-related mininformation in the first three months of this year…about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media. Many died from drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products. They wrongly believed the products to be a cure for the virus.

Alistair Coleman, BBC News

So misinformation is not just dangerous politically, but potentially lethal. The findings of this research is surely enough to highlight the very real threat of embodied harm that misinformation poses, even if the purposefully false political advertising doesn’t strike you as wholly problematic.

The value of knowledge sharing on social media

Why do you use social media?

My top three reasons are:

  1. keep up to date with friends and family
  2. for work (content creation and curation, community management, networking) and uni research purposes
  3. to learn and keep up to date with what’s happening in the world/specific areas of my interests

That’s a great thing about social media – the free, open access to people and information. It’s quite amazing, really. We have the world in the palm of our hands. We can visit cities across the world through screens, track social movements through hashtags, build communities of learning. Recent months have seen several high profile social justice movements rise to prominence through social media activism – not least Black Lives Matter, support for Lebanon and educating on the situation in Yemen. Infographics, videos, Instagram Lives, TikToks and other social media tools are being spread far and wide – often crossing platforms – to educate, inspire and encourage action.

But at what cost?

How often do we pause to think about the cost of creating these resources? Or the knowledge that fed their creation? What is the cost of social media activism and education?

Firstly, there’s the cost of labour.
I’m talking the time, energy, tools, resources and knowledge required to create infographics. All too often, there’s an emotional labour cost put on marginalised activists and educators too. None of this is reimbursed in any way because social media platforms are non-monetised unless you run/engage in advertising. So all this work is being done for free.

We have gotten so used to getting things for free, we don’t even stop to consider the real cost of the information. And, in turn, we devalue the knowledge and skill of those who disseminate it.

And what about boundaries?
When we identify specific people as The Educators for certain topics, we often see comments demanding more from those educators or content creators to cover X, Y and Z on that topic (or, even totally unrelated things – because they’re The Educators).

We see people holding individuals responsible for knowledge dispensing – something which also highlights potential issues down the line with knowledge gatekeeping – and pressure being put on content creators to post/talk/educate on topics that platform users want to see prioritised, regardless of the account owner’s own knowledge, interest or feelings on the matter.

Basically, what I’m saying is that by identifying The Educators, we’re becoming more demanding of their time, effort, knowledge and energy. And (back to the point on cost) we’re doing nothing to compensate them for this. These social media platforms are free, predominantly open access, or partially open if they screen followers. But the fact remains that instead of us going to Google to do our own research, we’re relying on the labour of The Educators to keep us up to date with all the current hot topics in a well-rounded way without engaging in these conversations ourselves with any analysis, criticism or reflection.

The crossing and ignoring of boundaries is particularly prevalent in the experiences of Black women and other marginalised activists and educators, from what I’ve seen. Ericka Hart, a sex educator on Instagram, posted this week about their experience of boundaries being crossed and gaslighting via DMs off the back of their Instagram Stories on colourism. Fashion sustainability activist Aja Barber has posted an FAQ about her space to her grid the other day, yet again, reaffirming her boundaries for her platform because people do not listen or take the time to understand how she is willing to engage with people on her account.

There’s a huge collective understanding of agency missing from social media users, I think. We forget that because these activists, educators and content creators have a platform and that they can be reached personally, that you are entitled to their attention. The accessibility of social media in widening participation in these conversations has come at the cost of recognising the individual as a person with their own boundaries, needs and limits. We see these people as a fountain of knowledge that we can endlessly fill our cups from, but we don’t do anything to replenish the fountain.

Which is why, understandably, more of The Educators are beginning to paywall some of their content on platforms like Patreon. There’s a personal safety element to that move, as well as a rebalancing the scales of power – paying for the labour of educating is a fundamental way of empowering The Educators, especially when they are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and/or from marginalised communities.

And I want to say something briefly on the point of knowledge.
How often are these content creators given status or recognition as a Knowledge Haver and Distributor without any real understanding of their experience to do so? How critical are we of our educators – where they got their knowledge, their lenses of reflection and analysis, the work they’re doing behind the scenes? It’s great to see social media accounts like Simple Politics and So You Want To Talk About popping up in the last few years – they largely take on complex issues in more accessible and easily digestible chunks, often provide sources lists and further reading lists for the issue at hand. However, a content creator (or team of creators) cannot be expected to be experts on every subject they cover if they don’t narrow their focus.

Social media platforms are not built for deeper reflection and analysis of complex subjects. They (sometimes) let us link to external resources, but how often do people actually click through to further their education? How often do they just keep scrolling and internally tick their Education box because they saw some images on an Instagram Story or watched a couple TikToks about the issue. Social media is not condusive in its current form to meaningful reflection. That doesn’t happen through pastel coloured squares with doodles and aesthetically pleasing fonts.

Pay up and pay forward

In my opinion, social media platforms are not the best places to get your education. Paying educators by buying their resources (books, films, documentaries, podcasts, newsletters) offers a more sustainable, more rounded approach.

Of course, not everyone can afford to subscribe to Patreon or buy the latest books on their reading list each month. To keep it accessible, consider paying forward a subscription once in a while to help those with less access to funds. Donate or lend your books and resources to others when you’re finished. There are ways to keep community activism and education accessible – most often its those who experience boundaries to access who lead the way in accessible education and resource sharing.

Social media can be a great tool for exposure to and community building around activism, passions and other knowledge. It cannot be the sole venue of learning. Many activists and educators have websites, newsletters, workshops and other platforms that are not social media-based, where it is much easier to link to more resources for learning and providing a more in-depth understanding of an issue or situation. And paying for that education, reimbursing these people (including organisations – many of these accounts are run by charities or non-profit orgs that rely on donations to keep producing content) is a powerful way to truly recognise the value of the knowledge these people are sharing on non-monetised platforms.

Social media, accountability and audiences

Activism is weird. Like, you do things to change minds, policies, laws, lives. To do that, you need to raise awareness. Your own connections, circles and networks are some quick ways to reach people who are more likely to listen out of some social obligation or personal interest in knowing about your interests.

When activism becomes about personal audiences, though, it’s problematic.

My activism, by and large, permeates every aspect of my life. Work, uni, down time. I spend a lot of time thinking about injustices and ways to change current broken systems. I have posted on social media about many of these things a lot. But as I try to figure out what a healthy relationship with social media looks like (or, indeed, if such a thing is possible), I am inclined to step away from posting about activism so much.

It feels counter-intuitive at first, but a truth I’m trying to ingrain so I feel less pressured to *perform* for those who follow, or are friends/connections on my various social media platforms is that no one is entitled to any part of me. That includes my activism. The petitions I sign, the private conversations I have, the learning I’m doing – what I do does not automatically come with a broadcast notice. Even though such broadcasting does encourage change, action and thinking from others. It’s not my responsibility alone to share what’s happening in my life. That goes for all things, but I find with activism the boundary is much harder to identify because – perhaps down to anxiety or an over-inflated ego – I have been under the impression that people sometimes hold me to a higher account than others.

Accountability is really important for ensuring promises are kept, demands are met and laziness doesn’t creep in when it’s convenient or there’s a lull in louder conversations. Many lulls happen due to burn out after an initial all-out push and an unsustainable approach to long-term activism goals and systemic changes. Nothing happens overnight. Many conversations happen in more private spaces, so it’s harder to see action that’s occurring in the background. Sure, regular updates and proof of progress and commitment are a good option, but some of these conversations are slow going, depending on the players involved.

Social media becomes a hotbed of accountability, limited-context performativity and (mis)judgement. That’s true of any activity posted on social media – think about how many pals who’ve ignored or broken lockdown rules that you’ve raised an eyebrow at, despite not really knowing the full details.

I’m still learning that there is often far more to any given situation than meets the eye. It’s a lesson I’m trying so hard to internalise and naturalise in my initial reaction catalogue. It hasn’t happened yet, but we’re getting there. I’m practicing a more individualistic approach – pause, reflect and analyse with kindness. We have no real clue what’s going on in anyone’s lives, and we’re all painfully aware of the reality-adjacent filters that everyone projects to perform or portray themselves in a particular way (consciously, habitually or subconsciously).

Personally, I have been stepping back my activism posting. The last 2 weeks I’ve been on holiday so – as much as I could – I dialled down the active work and let my brain mull over some thoughts and ideas in the background. It has been an enlightening fortnight for many reasons, but I realised the pressure I felt to share the learning I was doing, the active protesting I was involved in through petitions and the people I’ve been in conversation with about various issues was STRONG. Sharing that information would make little difference at this point – I was performing to prove I could be held accountable for outcomes yet to be achieved. Performative allyship in activism is a tricky bugger to understand or spot in your own behaviour. Overcoming it relies on longevity in your commitment to a given cause you’ve engaged with and a deeper than surface level desire to see justice served – however that might be done.

In writing this blog post, I feel like in a way I’m doing what I wanted to on social media – explain my perceived inaction and justify my social media silence. But I also wanted to acknowledge that this is an ongoing process and learning curve for me. In my position of privilege and with my weird relationship with social media, it’s important I reflect on my actions – even when the action is the decision to not post. There’s no correct way to approach activism or how much you share of yourself online. I’m finding I want to share less at the moment and that will undoubtedly change at some point. The peaks and troughs in content and engagement with platforms will no doubt continue to shape my digital activism, work, research and socialising. I just hope I continue to hold myself accountable and rely less on how others might perceive my activity to judge or justify my posting to any social media, for any reason.

Antiracism and Your Online Presence

A bit of background
Researching violence on social media, I look at language, memes, GIFs, emojis, the weight of violence in a retweet, and a whole range of other instances of violence as they occur on the internet. This is a topic I have been interested in for years and now it is the focus of my PhD. It’s a sprawling topic, much like the World Wide Web itself.

In light of the Black Lives Matter revolution gaining more traction and attention than ever before, antiracism is an understandably amplified topic both online and off. Of course, much of the current conversation is performative – that’s what happens when you haven’t done the work up til now. It’s not like people haven’t been talking about racism around the world for hundreds of years. People have just chosen to listen, to actively silence and place their own comfort above the safety of those affected by white supremacy. However, with more people joining these conversations, there are some patterns emerging that are a continuation of racism in digital spaces.

Back it up a bit
We’re living in the age of the internet. Many of the conversations we have about racism, antiracism and white supremacy are happening online. In theory, this is a great thing. Accessibility is hugely important, as are inclusion and diversity. The digital age should allow us to give space to educators, activists, those with lived experience and let us learn from a range of people across the world. However, the way we use much of the internet – especially social media – doesn’t often allow for this in practice. One of the reasons for this is the fact that poverty overwhelmingly affects Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Access is not a simple issue and intersecting barriers like racism, poverty and problems faced by those with other marginalised identities compound the inaccessible nature of social media for many of the important conversations where these people’s voices are most needed.

Another problem is that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are routinely silenced on social media platforms. The algorithms are biased and do not amplify marginalised users where they should. Platform safety policies rarely do enough to protect users, but often are used against marginalised users to silence them when they speak out about the racism they’re experiencing on the platforms and in wider society. Then there’s the racist platform users who leave comments, share content and post their own content with the intent to harm; creating hostile environments for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour on the platforms. Coordinated attacks routinely see the deplatforming of Black, Indigenous and Poeple of Colour whose powerful voices condemn racism, white supremacy and a number of related social issues (e.g. whorephobia, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, poverty, class systems, misogyny).

Effective communication online
Another problem is that nuance can be difficult to communicate online. When you rely on images and text (especially with character limits), you often lose tone, facial expression, and context for starters. Videos often have a time limit. Posts can be taken out of context. Intention is hard to discern online and perception can be nearly impossible to predict (this is all stuff I’m picking apart in my thesis and to date I have no real answer for rectifying this issue). We have come to view certain actions as agreement, even when there’s no accompanying text to contextualise sharing or liking a post. We are seeing that platform users are finding ways around implicit messaging attached to actions like shares and likes. On Twitter, for example, we see people screenshotting tweets and images for resharing to minimise amplification of content (which at times is done to minimise harm, other times to capture ‘receipts’ or proof that the content did exist, should it be deleted). However, the fact remains that fully understanding someone’s point of view can be very difficult with the limited context and content provided by social media – particularly where there’s a lack of audiovisual components.

Internet communication is endlessly complex. Tackling complex issues on platforms where intention can be misunderstood does not bode well for positive exchange, civil discussion or learning. Every user has a unique relationship with the technology they use and a unique approach to their engagement with the platforms they use. Those relationships will depend on a number of things, not least their prior experience with the internet, their understanding of their own identity, their understanding of how identity construction online, their relationships with the people they interact with on the platform and their understanding of how others view them on that platform. Like I said, it’s complex stuff. Much of this work is subconscious, largely because our education on internet existence, identity building and online safety was (and continues to be) sorely lacking so those of us who grew up in the age of the internet have had to figure things out as we determined the ways in which apps and platforms would work for us and navigating the interface and content changes forced on us by the platform owners (think about Instagram’s proposed removal of the Likes count display and Tumblr’s banning of sexual content as two recent examples).

Unfortunately, since more and more people rely on social media for communication, education and entertainment, these conversations need to occur in places where more people are likely to see and engage in them. So, complex messages have to be distilled down to fit with platform formats. And, because we’re human and we like repetitive formats, we tend to consume information in the ‘easiest’, most condensed option available. Oftentimes, this results in us losing much of the nuance in conversations. It can also result in well-meaning conversations doing more harm tham good.

Taking the racism out of your internet use
Now, let’s consider your own online presence and how you might work antiracism into your internet use. First of all, look at who you’re following. How many educators, activists, researchers, artists, writers, musicians are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour? Now is the time to curate your feed in a way that promotes a diverse range of thinking, lived experience and action. Maybe you should unfollow people you know are refusing to learn and do the work to be antiracist. Maybe try and engage with people you know who are continuing to be racist and do the work so your pals from marginalised communities don’t have to.

One thing you should absolutely do is research the content you’re engaging with. Look into the arguments and the people sharing them – are they the OP (original poster), or are the reposting other people’s content without credit? Are these people experts, are they new to the conversation? Are there others you can learn more from and who share more nuanced takes on big issues? We’re all so quick to hit Share, but we don’t spend nearly enough time researching to ensure we’re promoting informed individuals who actively work to minimise harm and work in antiracist ways. A quick internet search of “[name] controversy” or “[name] harm” will give you an overview, but search Twitter and Instagram too. Whisper networks often work by not tagging but still using harmful users’ names (or swapping letters for an asterisk to avoid pile-ons or other violence). And be ready to be wrong.

One of the biggest things you can do is be open to being corrected or challenged. We’re human. We won’t get it right all the time. Getting it wrong isn’t the end of the world – it’s an opportunity to learn and expand our understanding of an incredibly complex issue. Share your learning – if you weren’t aware, the likelihood is some of your social media followers won’t have known either. Openness and accountability are good practices to engage with in your internet use.

There’s not only one strategy for weaving antiracism into your online presence, but there are lots of steps you can take in decolonising your social media use that will help.

Digital Blackface and cultural appropriation online
Think about where your internet use includes appropriation. Do you use African American Vernacular English outside of contexts where you are quoting somebody? What words do you search for in the Giphy library, and how many of those GIFs are stereotyped behaviours of Black people? Digital blackface is an issue I have been exploring for a few years. It’s real and it’s incredibly problematic. Teen Vogue published an article about Blackface in GIFs a few years back and I highly recommend you read it. Giphy hired a Cultural Editor, Jasmyn Lawson to address the imbalance of representation in GIFs. She was interviewed by i-D in 2018 on making GIFs more Black and the interview really stuck with me.

“I want to have GIFS that represent all types of black women: light-skinned, dark-skinned, heavy set, different sexual orientations, trans. And really make sure all the different sects of a certain minority group is being represented well in the media.”

Jasmyn Lawson, in an interview for i-D

That this was such a revolutionary step in 2018 really frustrated and upset me. But I was so inspired by Jasmyn’s work. It got me thinking about how I present myself online. Do I resort to racist caricatures? I certainly did. I take a lot more time in choosing GIFs and sharing memes now, considering what implicit messages they carry and whether they fall foul of racial stereotyping or appropriation.

There are multiple ways non-Black people have been appropriating Black culture, history, pain and joy. A recent example is the Breonna Taylor memes. The memeification of her murder, “Anyway arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, is a stark reminder that the ways we engage with content on the internet removes an element of humanity from the topics we’re discussing. An excellent article from Huffington Post explores the need for greater recognition by non-Black people of Black humour, joy, grief, pain and culture.

But the popularity of this one call for action has also highlighted the ways in which this current cultural moment is being commodified, trivialized and used as fodder for performative allyship. 

Zeba Blay, Huffington Post

Removing racism from your social media use
We need to bring our internet interaction back to a place of intention and reflection. If we’re going to post online, we have to take away the mindless scroll and actively participate. That means stopping to think about why we’re consuming the content we are, what potential impact this could be having on others, and how we want to engage with other people. In many cases, our use won’t change. But you might consider not retweeting harmful tweets – retweeting tells the algorithm to amplify the post and will potentially put more people at risk of harm. You might add a contextual message to the Instagram post you share to your Story. Maybe instead of a Story, you record a video to give you more space to communicate effectively and save it to your highlights so you can reflect on it later and have it accessible beyond the 24 hour mark.

Social media, but make it antiracist
How you present yourself online is how people will likely remember you, especially during times where in-person meetings are limited and more of our communication is occuring through screens (with or without video and microphones enabled). Actively working antiracism into your internet use, particularly your social media, is a crucial step in decolonising your online presence. The internet doesn’t start or end with social media, but as it continues to play a huge part of our lives in how we curate our digital existence, portray our lives, consume content, learn, engage in activism and so much more, it’s certainly a great place to start building antiracism into your daily life.

This is a huge topic. Technically it’s a combination of multiple huge topics, which makes it even bigger. Such a mammoth needs more than one 2,000 blog post/essay/thought piece/brain dump to investigate it. I have lots of thoughts and feelings about lots of things that are happening online. I’ll publish new blog posts when I have the energy and the words to verbalise the abstract ideas that are bouncing around my brain. As you can probably tell from this ridiculously long blog post, I’m incredibly passionate about these topics. Not least from a research perspective, but as a human who works, researches, learns, connects and emotes a lot online it’s important to me that I reflect regularly on what I’m seeing and doing. I hope this post has given you some food for thought too.