Fake news — specifically, factually inaccurate information that is presented as vetted by professional journalists — has become a nationwide phenomenon over the past few years, particularly on social media.
Many Americans are more ill-informed than ever before given how easy it currently is to spread misinformation — false information that is spread regardless of intent to mislead — and disinformation — deliberately misleading or biased information manipulated narrative or facts.
The RAND Corporation is calling this trend “truth decay,” defined as “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”
The three trends of truth decay
Dr. Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political science for the RAND Corporation, explained the three particular scientific trends that characterize truth decay.
“The first would be a disagreement about objective facts and data, in places where we have clear data, clear evidence, and people continue to reject that box, or to say the opposite is the case,” Kavanagh told Yahoo Finance. “Examples would be the debate over the safety of vaccines, is one case where we have an overwhelming body of evidence showing that they’re safe, but an increasing number of people saying that they’re not safe.”
This has been the case with the anti-vaccine community, which promotes itself as for “vaccine safety.” The community often denies scientific evidence, convinced that vaccines can cause fatal harm and other damage to the body, which is an alarming belief amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, 44% of Republicans believe a conspiracy theory that Microsoft (MSFT) founder and billionaire Bill Gates wants to use a coronavirus vaccine to implant microchips into billions of people so that he can monitor their movements (although this has no basis).
“The second trend is … if you’re looking at disinformation online, which is the blurring of the line between fact and opinion,” Kavanagh said. “Online, it’s really easy to mix opinion, facts, analysis, falsehood, and it’s difficult for a reader to disentangle those different types of information.”
The challenge to stopping this is the First Amendment, which protects free speech. Social media companies have come under fire in recent years for allowing the spread of misinformation and disinformation online, and some like Facebook and Twitter have started taking steps to addressing this.
“It’s a really tricky challenge because that line between making sure that we’re providing accurate information and getting disinformation out of the ecosystem and protecting free speech and letting people express their opinions and their beliefs, is a fine line,” Kavanagh said. “I think one step that can be taken is better labeling of false information, making sure that people are aware when they’re seeing information that has been proven false. You see some social media platforms, like Twitter, starting to do more of that.”
Twitter now adds a label at the top of a tweet it deems to be spreading false information. This has happened on several occasions to high-profile figures, including President Trump on more than one occasion.
“And then the final trend that we look to is declining trust in institutions,” Kavanagh said. “Especially those that are, or were, looked to as sources of factual information, so the government, the media. Trust in those institutions has been down and as a result, people feel not only is it hard to figure out what’s a fact and what’s not, but they’re not sure where to look to find those facts. And so, those trends together is how we would describe this phenomenon that we call truth decay.”
An April 2020 survey from RAND found that 41% of Americans believe that the news has become less reliable than it was in the past. At the same time, the same survey found that ⅓ of Americans use news sources they believed were less reliable, like social media or their peers.
“In terms of the broader media, there are steps that can be taken in terms of trying not to amplify false information,” Kavanagh said. “If we constantly repeat false statements, so as to defend it, when we know it’s false and we don’t provide that context, all we do is give it more ammunition. We spread it further. So, thinking carefully about how we cover false information in the broader media, I think is another step that could be taken to make sure that we’re not contributing to the problem.”
QAnon ‘allows them to make their own reality’
While there are endless amounts of conspiracy groups circulating online, QAnon is the most rampant.
QAnon began with “Q,” a persona claiming to be someone within the government, promising to expose how dark forces are working against Trump and his administration. The “Anon” part comes from Q’s readers, who decipher Q’s “clues” on message boards and build outlandish interpretations. Posters named “Q” have been instigating unfounded theories on social networks including 4Chan, 8Chan, and Reddit.
The group is responsible for Pizzagate, Obama birtherism, and other conspiracy theories.
“QAnon now is pretty, pretty amazing,” Josh Introne, a professor of data science at Syracuse University, told Yahoo Finance. “Firstly, as an instance of a conspiracy theory, all conspiracy theories thrive because they are a form of participatory storytelling. QAnon just really exemplifies this. You can’t write down the QAnon story because it is always growing.”
At one point, there were more than 170 groups, pages, and accounts dedicated to QAnon on Facebook and Instagram with more than 4.5 million followers, according to The Guardian. On Oct. 6, Facebook made the announcement that it would be banning all QAnon content across the company platforms.
“They’re out there trying to find the evidence and they push the story and ways and the story response,” Introne said. “If they feel disempowered in this world, Q gives them an outlet, something that allows them to make their own reality and feel powerful once again.”
While that’s the case for all conspiracy theories, he noted that one thing QAnon is particularly better at is co-opting other conspiracy theories, like those of Bill Gates.
“Before that, there have been lots of conspiracy theories that are exactly the same as the ones that are being levered at Gates, which are that the liberal elite is trying to control us,” Introne said. “The liberal elite is going to do something to disenfranchise those of us who are in the 99%. QAnon has brought that story in and they brought the anti-vaxxer story and they brought the Pizzagate story.”
Where the phenomenon goes from here could have even more troubling implications.
“The thing that I worry about is that it may push the norm a little bit in a different way,” Introne added. “The fact that we’re now seeing politicians who believe in Q or not, it means that ‘OK maybe I don’t believe I’m not falling fully on board with QAnon, but there’s something going on that’s not quite right.’ And all of the sudden, it becomes normative to not trust that people are credible anymore, that maybe the media is not just biased but actually includes those who have money in order to get us to believe in something else.”
‘Anybody can spread disinformation to millions of people in just a click’
The spread is not new, but social media drives truth decay at an unprecedented scale.
“What’s new is that the scale and scope has just changed dramatically with social media and other types of online platforms,” she said. “Previously, your ability to spread disinformation was much more contained and much more limited. You are limited to those people that you could either tell in person, or if you’re going through the newspaper, the circulation of that newspaper, or radio, the audience of that radio show.”
Nowadays, she continued, “anybody can spread disinformation to millions of people in just a click and that information can then go viral. And so, the ability of that information to spread to so many more people so much faster, out of anybody to be a source of information, that I think changes the dynamic.”
The problem is the that technology is not inherently good or bad. The internet and social media have a number of positive effects, like the ability to form networks and communities online.
“So that’s the real challenge here,” Kavanaugh said. “How do we rein in those negative consequences while not losing the positive ones?”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.