In the age of digital media, information can be easily accessed through a few clicks or even with just voice commands like Siri or Bixby or Google. But this information can also be weaponized leading to misinformation and division. Digital Planet takes on the challenge to study the impact of digitalization and emerging technologies. 

Last October 21, Digital Planet published their study The Misinformation Maelstrom: A Mapping of Vulnerability Across America accessible through Tuft University, The Fletcher School. 

In this study, they explored which states are most, and least vulnerable to misinformation considering five evidence-based indicators namely political polarization, education, age, traditional news viewership, and trust in social media. The model employed the definition for misinformation which describes it as “a claim that contradicts or distorts common understanding of verifiable facts” put forth by Princeton University Professor Andrew M. Guess and University of Utah Professor Benjamin A. Lyons. 

In an interview, Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, was asked by Forward’s Molly Boigon why he decided to do this research. He answered, “This year, 2020, you gave the combination of a pandemic, the political campaigns, and everybody is spending so much time digitally. It’s the perfect moment for information of all kinds – good, bad, or indifferent – to be coursing through the systems.”

In the US, there has been an increased growth in social media usage. Statistics during the last Presidential Elections with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton vying for the highest office showed that from January 1st to December 1st, the announcement garnered over 76 million engagements making it the most talked about topic in 2015. 

The situation back then still reflects the image of politics today. With candidates utilizing social media for their political campaigns, social media became a primary source of news and American public has definitely relied on it. According to the study, this increased reliance is “worrisome because of the propensity of these platforms to spread misinformation.” Not to mention that COVID-19 has also contributed to the exacerbation of this trend and “fostering a boom of both digital crime and misinformation.”

Case In Point: Anti-semitism and Antifa

Last November 15, conservative writer for Post Millennial Matthew Miller, posted a video on Twitter showing a protester in Washington D.C. carrying a flag with “Jewish Anti-Fascist Action” and “antifa” on it with a red and black Star of David. 

A protester in Washington D.C. carrying a flag with “Jewish Anti-Fascist Action” and “antifa” on it with a red and black Star of David. 

The tweet has garnered 42 likes and 59 retweets with some notable quote tweets like user @rofujones who said, “Antifa Jewish Anti Fascist Action”! Why?! Because Antifa is Communist and Communism is a Jewish creation!”

Another user @N0H8ING also shared his thought on the matter quoting the video with “Like I was saying…”

The video clip which the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) reported to have been shared by hateful actors has sparked chatter. Anti-semites have been actively pushing that Jewish organizations are behind the far right movement with a total of 1,554 hateful posts and comments about the Jewish community across social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit. 

Additionally, the video clip was shared by a prominent antisemitic account with 35,000 followers attracting more attention. It has also been recently shared on BitChute, a platform popular for its extremist content wherein it has also gained substantial attention. 

Anti Semites have also gone as far as exploiting clips from Jewish and Israeli news organizations to further establish their case. There have also been running conspiracy theories even before about Jewish philanthropist George Soros that he is funding antifa and empowering socialism and communism. In a report by ISD, it said that the most recent discussion posted in hateful groups “represent a notable attempt to blur the lines” and “incite hatred and conspiracies.”

What is antifa? Is it really Jewish?

According to the dictionary, antifa is defined as “a political protest movement comprising autonomous groups affiliated by their militant opposition to fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing ideology.” Basically, antifa is an umbrella term that encompasses a broad spectrum of far-left groups and individuals and can simply be defined as “anti-fascist”.

Last June, Donald Trump promised in a tweet that “the United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization”. But legal experts quickly threw in arguments that “there may be no means by which any domestic entity can be designated in this way,” as stated in a report by The Guardian. That is, antifa does not exist as a “distinct identity” and cannot therefore be pointed to a specific group of people. 

Nevertheless, antifa conspiracy theories are still believed by many especially rightwing politicians and activists who describe it as “a unitary organization with leaders and even secret funding.” Mark Bray, historian and the author of Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, noted that this simply wasn’t true. 

Key Findings of the Study

Bhaskar Chakravorti said in his interview with Boigon that, “There has been an enormous amount of focus on what social media platforms have been doing or what they can or cannot do, from the perspective of moderating this tsunami of misinformation.”

With that, they came up with a question: “How does the picture change if you were to consider the demand side of misinformation – not that we are demanding misinformation, but we are consuming the information, and does it vary depending on where you live?”

The study revealed that there were several underlying drivers which explained the nature of people who are more at risk of digesting misinformation. 

First, data from the national survey of Global Web Index (GWI) and American National Election Studies were employed which sorted states into three general categories: liberal, conservative, or neutral. The data showed that out of the total conservative category, 19 states were classified as “highly conservative” which means that more than a third of the US states are polarized to the right.

And while misinformation can be spread across the political spectrum, it has been revealed that “conservatives are more likely to share misinformation than liberals or moderates.” This finding is also affected by age. In a 2019 study in Science Advances, Americans over the age of 65 were more likely to share fake news on Facebook compared to the younger generation which Chakravorti noted as a risk because not only are they consuming the information, they are also actively dispersing misinformation . As of recent statistics, Facebook has a considerable influence with 73% of its user base getting news from the platform. 

The study also looked at the nature of media that people consume and also explored whether they actually subscribe to it. It also took into consideration how ideological an individual is in terms of whether they use only one kind of medium or do they triangulate knowledge by absorbing information from different sources. 

The study found that there is a considerable number of states that are highly  vulnerable to misinformation including Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida. 

Conclusion

According to Chakravorti, the US can effectively fight misinformation by producing a counter strategy that is focused in a super surgical way. He said, “It’s not enough for Facebook to put a label, or deprioritize, or fact check this thing. 

He also added that while misinformation can be combated through efforts of social media platforms, it also needs a more locally tailored approach through local media including radio and television channels and even local Facebook pages built for residents. 

“Just like politics is local, misinformation is also local.” Chakravorti said.