I spend an astonishing amount of time perusing the cyber abyss that is Instagram. I have seen almost every iteration of infographic on state-sanctioned atrocities in Xinjiang, Armenia, Yemen, Nigeria and the United States in varying degrees of detail.
These digestible bits of information, some in the form of memes, some embellished with kitschy graphics and pastels, have skyrocketed in popularity in the wake of this year’s chaos. Most are skipped through, but the ones that end up being read achieve what they were meant to do — leave an impression — as I see them repeatedly screenshotted and reposted.
The ease with which this information disperses has proven to be dangerous. One particular post I came across a few weeks ago left me floored, but not by the novelty of the information it conveyed. One succinct, pithy (and now deleted) sentence was reposted by seven of my acquaintances: “More Uighurs have died in concentration camps than Jews in the Holocaust.”
This blatantly unsubstantiated conjecture likening the Holocaust’s atrocities to those in Xinjiang definitely provokes the visceral shock it set out to elicit, but it is egregiously misinformative. The unconscionable horrors that are being perpetuated in Xinjiang certainly aren’t condemned enough. Trivialization of the Holocaust, however, is far from the right strategy.
Social media is rife with such falsehoods. The crusade to expunge fake news from all levels of the internet is a war in which both conservatives and liberals have eagerly enlisted. The panic that surrounds its spread makes sense; agitated people surviving a pandemic don’t want anything to wrongfully sway the most gripping U.S. election in history. However, the narcissistic neglect of many liberals to even consider the possibility that leftist media runs rampant with lies, just like right-leaning media, is exactly what allows it to fester.
This presence of misleading information in the American consciousness is detrimental. According to a Pew Research study on made-up news, it drives division, forcing individuals to cut certain media outlets out of their mental repositories. The fear that false news’ existence induces has caused many people to consume less news overall. “More Americans view made-up news as a very big problem for the country than … terrorism, illegal immigration, racism and sexism,” the study says.
Thus, condemning false information — regardless of political stance — and proliferating as much correct information as possible is key. Considering the motivation behind this spike in sermonic reposting is equally important.
Some erroneous information is weaponized to do things like sway elections and proselytize the population. Much of it, however, comes from performative activism and virtue signaling, which many people define as speaking out about a cause with the sole intent of appearing virtuous. This ivory tower moralizing that the left is more prone to explains why many fail to fact check. If boosting/improving one’s social image is the impetus for reposting, making sure that what one is posting is correct is of far less concern.
Because they’re “designed to be performative in nature,” platforms like Instagram and Twitter facilitate this behavior, said Dr. Claire Wardle, a user-generated content expert. In an article explaining the “new world disorder” created by misinformation, she asserted that “slowing down to check whether content is true before sharing it is far less compelling than reinforcing to your ‘audience’ on these platforms that you love or hate a certain policy.”
While most people who propagate false information don’t know they are doing so, there are ways to ensure that we don’t personally make the same mistakes. Recognize and reject the allure of confirmation bias. Fact check before posting — even reverse image search memes to be extra sure. Investigate if something warrants skepticism.
Finally, supplant fake news with real news. While journalistic outlets have a propensity to report in a manner that aligns with certain biases, social media is still no adequate replacement. It should operate as a starting point to seek and interrogate the information journalism supplies.
Kristen Lu CM ’24 is a hopeful philosophy, politics and economics major from Palos Verdes, California. She owns a bubble tea shop in Animal Crossing.