Misinformation and Critical Thinking in the Social Media Age

By Jamie Varga

Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, a good number of us fall prey to misinformation in the dialogue that happens on social media. Personally, I stand fast to the point of view that social media and the internet are not causes of any of this, but are simply tools inappropriately wielded as weapons, and the ensuing social breakdown is the result. When discussing the issue of misinformation, it can be hard to stay on target, as the conversation follows a myriad of winding paths and perspectives. For good or bad, recent events have given life to a prime illustration of this machine in action. 

A recent article from the Washington Post about former president Donald Trump and some of his allies being banned from Twitter made claims that misinformed Tweets about election fraud dropped by as much as 73% after his ban from the service. This should come as no surprise, since lies and untruths are essentially what Trump’s whole campaign and presidency were built upon. Populist politicians have realized that the latest demographic for them to tap into is the “ordinary citizens” that span all constituencies. Minorities, women, special interest groups, conservative-leaning progressives, and left-leaning right-wingers are all composed of these “ordinary citizens,” and the only thing that stands in the way of uniting them as a majority voice has been a philosophical divide based on each of their principles.

Now, these politicians have somehow convinced us that they are also “ordinary citizens” just like us, and we all share the same principles but have been misled by the mainstream or the alternative depending on which side they are pandering to. Add in the extra spice that there is a legitimate gap ever-expanding between citizens and our leaders as they continue to lose connection to the people and live within a world often without accountability. As that disconnection widens, doubt in facts leads to their dismissal simply with enough public support.

We have slowly gone from a society that once respected facts, education, and the general drive to be correct to a world where people who still stand by these standards are becoming uncommon. There are some big wheels in motion as to why that is, but at the core is the fact that our scholastic standards have been stressed beyond their capacity to cope with this new world of “alternative facts.” The emphasis on being factual in our claims has faded and a window left open, allowing critical thought to be pushed outside; for an example, one needs to look no further than some people’s continued belief in discredited claims of a direct link between vaccines and autism. This lack of critical thought has led to us abandoning the ideal of everyone being entitled to their opinion so long as they could support it, and we are now presented with this distorted view that everyone’s opinion is their own personal truth and if you don’t like it, you can go find your own truth.

Sadly, many of us dive into all this willingly, and our very ignorance can blind us from the ability to know whether or not we even know what we are talking about. What you don’t know can hurt you because, if your “expertise” is based on misinformation and you are incorrect, not only will you not know it, you also won’t care when you are contradicted with evidence. This becomes a dangerous state of being for the main reason that we end up arguing over the truth and fallacy of misinformation while the real enemy continues to do its work in the shadows. That enemy is disinformation—the deliberate manipulation of facts to push a particular agenda. By giving into “alternative facts,” we have followed the primrose path by simply smashing that “share” button without even checking to see if what we are sharing is true, and often without even reading the articles at all. All the while, those entities with interest and agenda in controlling certain information take comfort in our oblivion and distraction.
Most upsetting is that very few of us can claim to be innocent of spreading this misinformation. I know I have at one time or another. Like many other personal faults however, I think the first step of recovery is to simply acknowledge that. “My name is Jamie Varga and I have a critical thinking problem….” After that, we can move on to how we fix all of this. Ask questions, investigate, discuss, debate, agree to hold judgement, and most importantly, have a desire to be correct instead of right. My new rule is to question almost everything, and to remember that new facts can change a truth but a perception of truth, on its own, can never alter a fact.