We are in uncharted waters. Both the world and the internet have become increasingly vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories. People are easily convinced by misinformation campaigns that are seeded across social media platforms. And today, millions of people will find themselves part of conspiracy theories swirling online.
A recent Pew study found that 62 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of Republicans — believe climate change is a hoax. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed also believe the moon landing occurred in the 1960s, a finding that shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, the level of certainty over which a person believes this false information varies dramatically from political party to party, even within the same family.
Click HERE to see why this theory about NASA is spreading on social media.
To quantify the effects of misinformation on American society, this latest piece from The Washington Post asked 1,600 Americans aged 18 and older to answer one question on a survey. After a little more than 10 minutes to complete the survey, nearly half—49 percent—of Americans found themselves deeply convinced of one or more conspiracy theories about alien abductions.
That’s just one of the many dubious claims people spread online. You can find “alternative facts” that people believe exist about 9/11, the moon landing, the official #SuperBowl7 halftime show, Pope Benedict XVI, and the meteor that hurtled across the sky in February 2015. The notion that experts somehow “get it wrong” is an important component of the online culture war.
In a world where information is often easily accessible—by punching the right search term, finding a specific article or video online, or reading a single piece of fake news—a conspiracy theory can be born overnight.
It’s no wonder people are falling victim to conspiracy theories online. Leading policymakers recognize this trend. With Trump’s election as president, there has been a significant increase in conspiracy theories.
By 2017, America was divided over whether the 2016 election was rigged. Nearly half of registered voters said that they believe the election was influenced by Russia. Many other Americans have believed false information that they found online because they believed the news was true.
And in his State of the Union speech, President Trump mentioned the Internet’s dominant role in spreading false information. Yet another indicator of our new post-truth world.
The rise of the internet also means that a “crisis of data literacy” is spreading faster and faster. Even though most people know that misinformation spread through the internet is not natural, but caused by “legitimate narratives” spread online, many continue to fall victim to conspiracy theories.
The impact of information is increasingly being shaped by powerful forces that actively spread falsehoods and conspiracy theories. In a world where nearly everyone can share fake news with a single click, false information has become a much bigger issue. But we can do something about it. The technology is there.
Whether we are technology startups, a car company, or media network that produces informative and entertaining content, every company needs to act to combat the spread of false information online. The truth is out there, and it’s where the information is getting shared.
False information has no real purpose outside of serving those who spread it. By creating transparency around all of the facts we use in our everyday lives, we can combat the spread of fake news.
Sometimes, you have to take your own advice. In July, Vice Media, for example, canceled one of its ad campaigns after it discovered it was being used to share misinformation and conspiracies. In January, Apple publicly canceled an ad campaign featuring a man turning into a lion after Twitter users convinced others that the video was fake.
The truth is always out there—we just have to find it.
Alon Lubov is a senior associate at Center for a New American Security and the executive director of its Cyber Statecraft Initiative. Andy Wiederhorn is a research assistant at the Center. This post originally appeared on The Daily Beast and was reproduced with permission.