‘Infosmog’ and the challenge of misinformation

Hillary Clinton’s well documented ties to satanic rituals are back in the headlines. Alarming footage of democrats stuffing ballot boxes is being shared by thousands online. We are even hearing confessions from her former hitman.

You may be surprised to hear it might not be all that. Accusations of Satanism are bubbling away from the same group of conspiracy theorists convinced the world is run by lizards, the ballot box stuffing is footage from Russia, and the former hitman appears to be none other than Ed Miliband.

As the information available to us on the internet grows, so too does the problem of how to know what information to believe become more and more apparent.

A trending hashtag on Twitter ‘#infosmog’ is highlighting how deliberately misleading stories, often shared on social media platforms, are infiltrating people’s daily lives. Fake stories from fake newspapers are shared in their thousands, creating a ‘smog’ of information too bewildering and too dense to make sense of, or rebut.

People are increasingly reliant on social media platforms for their everyday news intake; of the 67% of US citizens that use Facebook, 44% rely on the platform for their everyday intake of news.Twitter recently rebranded itself as a news app. But with no viable means to fact-check the sheer volume of garbage out there, the public has found itself open to deception.

Trust is falling in mainstream media. People are turning to alternative sources of news, or, more commonly, to the news their peers are sharing. If an individual ‘trusts’ the outlet they are following then it is completely plausible that they would feel no need to double check these validity of the stories anyway. This is even more likely when news is shared by friends or family. The reality is however, that the followers of certain pages and websites are being fed misinformation and propaganda with the potential for significant consequences.

The wealth of conspiracy theories surrounding the US election highlights the thickness of this ‘infosmog’. Partisans from both the left and right have been sucked into these webs of deceit, declaring rigged elections, media bias and implicating both candidates in progressively more outlandish plots.

Unsurprisingly, the more outrageous the story claims are the more likes and shares it appears to receive. An example is a recent story ran in the ‘Denver Guardian’ about an FBI agent supposedly involved in a Hillary Clinton email scandal, who was found dead in “an apparent murder-suicide”. Shared on Facebook thousands of times, both the story and news platform have been exposed as fakes. Irrespective of this, at its peak, the story was shared 100 times per minute, highlighting the momentum with which these stories can gather traction, and the ease at which this misinformation can be shared.

Such conspiracy theories are not limited to Twitter and Facebook. Sean Hannity, a mainstream radio host in the US, relayed a fake story about Barack Obama retracting endorsements for Hillary Clinton to his show with millions of listeners. On YouTube, Infowars, hosted by the irrepressible Alex Jones, has a following of 1.7 million viewers. Trump himself led the movement of ‘Birthers’ searching for Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Nonetheless, the online world acts as an unprecedented incubator for the spreading of such stories.

Although the US election may have drawn attention to this social media phenomenon, conspiracy theorist communities have been around since the dawn of time. And yet, from 9/11 truthers, to those decrying chemtrails, from flat earthers, to those warning of illuminati fluoride poisoning the water, the internet’s unique ability to foster communities has revived this longstanding tradition. Social media, underpinned by algorithms trying to filter the noise (and our own preference for views we agree with), has enabled the rise of ‘echo chambers’, closed spaces in which individuals have their own ideas or beliefs strengthened and reinvigorated through the reaffirmation of others. Sites such as Facebook facilitate the joining of groups and the sharing of stories with the click of a button. In an instant, like-minded people can share their opinions and stories with one another with ease.

Pleas from traditional news outlets to social media users to check the validity of the stories they are sharing are becoming more commonplace, though they frequently fall on deaf ears.

And what is the solution? Part of the problem with conspiracy theories is that arguing against them is frequently an impossible task. Could the answer be the addition of features such as Google’s News ‘fact checker’? For the US Election, this appears to have been too little too late.

Perhaps the onus of rooting out false claims falls on social media platforms. Facebook is yet to make any attempts to follow in Google’s shoes, but if people want to believe the stories being shared in their online bubbles this too seems a fruitless task.

Governments certainly can’t be charged with this responsibility, as these are the very people conspiracists already believe are the puppeteers of everything. It appears that there is no clear answer. As conspiracy theories and their champions grow in popularity, the online world faces an uphill struggle in combatting this growth of misinformation.