The Facts on Misinformation: Challenging The New Yorker’s Take

April 18, 2024

Manvir Singh, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, has written a provocative essay in the April 22, 2024, issue of The New Yorker about misinformation. Since our Center analyzes the spread of misinformation, and its intentionally created cousin, disinformation, the New Yorker piece entitled, “Don’t Believe What They’re Telling You About Misinformation,” caught my attention.

Singh makes two primary arguments. First, he urges us to worry less about misinformation—for example, false claims about the earth being flat, 9/11 having been a U.S.-government engineered “false flag” operation, or Bill Gates using COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips under the skin of untold millions—and more about societal ills that Singh argues cause misinformation.

Second, he at least partly exonerates social media and, more surprisingly, bad actors on the internet from bearing responsibility for misinformation. 

“More than Russian bots or click-hungry algorithms,” Singh writes, “a crisis of trust and legitimacy seems to lie behind the proliferation of paranoid falsehoods.”

“Railing against social media for manipulating our zombie minds is like cursing the wind for blowing down a house we’ve allowed to go to rack and ruin,” Singh adds. “It distracts us from our collective failures, from the conditions that degrade confidence and leave much of the citizenry feeling disempowered.”

He refers approvingly to scholars who “encourage us to see misinformation more as a symptom than as a disease. Unless we address issues of polarization and institutional trust, they say, we’ll make little headway against an endless supply of alluring fabrications.”

Social media companies, of course, are not the only source of misinformation. Flat earthers and 9/11 truthers were doing their thing long before Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok came on the scene. But in his apparent attempt to counter what he considers to be excessive panic about  misinformation, Singh makes some peculiar distinctions. He proposes that Russian bots and click-hungry algorithms have been falsely blamed when “a crisis of trust and legitimacy” is in fact the real culprit behind “the proliferation of paranoid falsehoods.”

But a big contributor to the crisis of trust and legitimacy is the mis- and disinformation spread by recommendation algorithms and bots, Russian and otherwise. In other words, Singh doesn’t really help sort out this complicated chicken-and-egg problem by exonerating technology companies from introducing and continuing to operate platforms that generate billions in profits by promoting sensational, hateful, and false content.

The same goes for polarization. Meta/Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, would applaud Singh’s notion that as a society we need to cure ourselves of toxic divisiveness rather than examine how social media platforms have exacerbated polarization. As our Center pointed out in a report published in September 2021, political polarization has multiple causes, most of them predating social media, but Facebook and its rival platforms nevertheless have intensified that polarization since the 2010s.

Singh is right to insist that misinformation is a complicated phenomenon. But in a bid to offer a counterintuitive take on the problem, he may muddy the waters, rather than add clarity. 


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