Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories

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Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories

One of the keys to a healthy, stable democracy is a shared set of facts and information among its citizens. A variety of factors, from changing technology to foreign interference, make achieving that common understanding more difficult than ever today. 

The episodes in this playlist explore the factors that led to what scholars describe as epistemic polarization, or a fundamental divide in how people receive and value information based on their political beliefs, and how that epistemic polarization presents a breeding ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories.

These are  big problems, but not insurmountable. The episodes and related resources also explore ideas for how we can reimagine social media, improve media literacy, and break down information silos.

FEATURED TOPIC EPISODES

Disinformation Wars

Internet giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter aren’t just part of the disinformation problem — they are the problem, according to author Nina Jankowicz. Her new book, How to Lose the Information War, details Russia’s efforts to meddle in the affairs of other countries by turning the tools of free speech against democracy itself. In this interview, Jankowicz makes clear the stakes are high, but the solutions — regulation and education — are within our grasp. Join Will and Siva as they explore, with Jankowicz’s help, how the Kremlin has refined a concerted program of disinformation and cyber warfare to divide citizens in Estonia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and other former Soviet satellites. Is this stuff really any different from age-old propaganda campaigns used by many governments? She thinks so.

A path forward for social media and democracy

The U.S. Capitol insurrection broke open a lot of conversations that had long been simmering under the surface about social media and democracy. Michal and Chris discuss this inflection point and our guest, MIT's Sinan Aral, shares ideas for how we might move forward.

Sinan Aral has spent two decades studying how social media impacts our lives, from how we think about politics to how we find a romantic partner. He argues that we're now at the crossroads of a decade of techno-utopianism followed by a decade of techno-dystopianism. How to reconcile the promise and peril of social media is one of the biggest questions facing democracy today.

Aral is the David Austin Professor of Management, Marketing, IT, and Data Science at MIT; director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy; and head of MIT’s Social Analytics Lab. He is the author of The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — And How We Must Adapt .

In his book and in this conversation, Aral goes under the hood of the biggest, most powerful social networks to tackle the critical question of just how much social media actually shapes our choices, for better or worse.

Additional Information

The Hype Machine

Sinan Aral on Twitter

Related Episodes

Facebook is not a democracy

Free speech from the Founding Fathers to Twitter

Post-Truth: Lee C. McIntyre

Lee C. McIntyre is the author of Post-Truth and a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. We discuss what post-truth means and where it started, what the function of fake news is, and how propaganda plays a role in subordinating a population.

Post-Truth

Post-truth is the political subordination of reality. It is not a failing of knowledge, but one of politics. Authoritarians use post-truth to corrupt our faith in the truth. The end goal is not to make citizens believe lies, but to make them so cynical and uncertain, they think they can never know the truth. Once this control over the information stream is achieved, leaders begin to have direct control over the populace. Post-truth marks the beginning of the descent into fascism for this reason.

Fake News

Fake news is intentionally false news. It’s a key tool in the pursuit of post-truth because it muddies the waters of reality. Once misinformation is in the public sphere, it is impossible to remove. The more fake news saturates the information market, the more jaded the target population becomes. Authoritarians can further confuse people by labeling the truth as fake news; they deny facts and demonstrate their control over their country’s information stream.

Propaganda

Propaganda is the most potent weapon in a post-truth leader’s arsenal. It is not designed to simply fool a population. Instead, it exists to demonstrate the government’s command of truth and that the truth is subordinate to the will of the leader. It shows the government’s ability to lie with impunity. Even if the population doesn’t believe the lie, it overwhelms their defenses, making them easier to rule.

Find out more:

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School. Formerly Executive Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, he has also served as a policy advisor to the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard and as Associate Editor in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

McIntyre is the author of several books, including Post-Truth and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age. Other work has appeared in such popular venues as the The New York Times, Newsweek, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Statesman, the Times Higher Education Supplement, and The Humanist.

You can follow Lee on Twitter @LeeCMcIntyre.

How does conspiracism impact American Politics?

In this week’s episode of Politics In Question, Nancy Rosenblum joins Julia, Lee, and James to discuss conspiracism and the Republican Party. Rosenblum is the Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government emerita. She is the co-author of numerous books and articles, including, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2019).

What causes conspiracism? How does it threaten American democracy? And what can we do about it? These are some of the questions that Nancy, Julia, Lee, and James discuss in this week’s episode.

Defending Democracy in the Digital World: A Conversation with Marietje Schaake

In 2020, the role of technology as a playing field in the geopolitical struggle between democracy and authoritarianism was magnified. While some governments like China seized control of their information environments; democracies were disadvantaged by floods of disinformation about the pandemic with little means to stop it. While there has been increasing interest from both the U.S. and Europe in aligning closer on some technology policy issues, competing visions for how tech should be governed have so far prevented a broad consensus on how to tackle complex issues like privacy and data protection, surveillance, antitrust, cybersecurity, freedom protections online, and more. In the final episode of the year, Lindsay Gorman, the Emerging Technologies fellow at GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy talks with Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and a former member of the European Parliament, about how (and why) tech has become a mediator of values and nation state power. What comes next in this high-stakes competition in the digital world and how will it play out in the physical world?

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