For some time now, I’ve been writing and speaking about how we can teach writing—and writers—in an age of misinformation and lies. I’ve done my homework, reading all I can about how easy it is these days to generate and spread disinformation, how simple it is to create a false narrative and beat it like a drum across the internet. And like many other teachers of writing, I’ve come up with some steps students can take—everything from fact checking to triangulating sources to relying on their good old common sense—to help identify and resist falsehoods.
But what is happening now has me more than frightened: indeed, I feel like my hair is on fire and that everyone who cares about the truth should be feeling the same way. Just take a look at McKay Coppins's "The 2020 Disinformation War" in the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic—and sit down and take ten deep breaths before you do so. Here’s one passage that took my breath away:
"Journalistic integrity is dead," [Breitbart editor Matthew] Boyle declared in a 2017 speech at the Heritage Foundation. "There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about the weaponization of information."
It’s a lesson drawn from demagogues around the world: When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda.
The weaponization of information. Coppins shows just that throughout this essay, following social media groups, attending MAGA rallies and talking with the people there, tracking the work of Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and showing how attempts to "fight fire with fire" have brought Democratic advocates to adopt similar weaponization strategies. It’s horrifying to read about and to watch unfold literally before our eyes.
In closing the essay, McKay cites political theorist Hannah Arendt, who
once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers "a mixture of gullibility and cynicism." When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then "admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to "believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true."
If McKay is even halfway correct, we and our students are in even deeper trouble than I had imagined. In addition to learning how to see through the "weaponization of information," we now have to face a larger question, one engendered by current AI research. When alternate realities can be created through technologies, including not just the latest advances in AI research but the latest manipulations of words and images, we need, no, we must respond. It’s time, I think, for our national organizations to sponsor meetings devoted solely to this challenge. We can act locally too, of course, by supporting news media that have integrity and are dedicated to honest reporting. And in our classrooms, we must give students ample opportunity to examine the weaponization of information and to find ways to resist "believing everything and nothing." We. Must.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 690192 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License