If you are living in the United States, odds are that you have heard something about the impeachment trial of our president in the past few days, but what exactly have you heard? What you think you know and what you have been told depends on what news channel you watch, who you interact with, and even your browser history. We are living in the information age, but not all information is real. In a world where statements by officials include alternative facts, how can you know which facts are verifiably true and which are not?
For much of history what you know has defined who you are. In the Middle Ages, books were rare and valuable, due to the sheer amount of effort needed to create them. Although the Gutenberg printing press greatly increased the availability of information, at least for those who were affluent enough to afford such books, the quality of the information still had the power to shape your views of the topic in a positive or negative way. Mass printing of books allowed people to escape their immediate informational environment and expand the scope of what they could learn about, but where there is information there is always disinformation.
World War I saw the first large scale deployment of propaganda by fighting nations attempting to control their citizens’ hearts and minds, but this event was by no means the last of its kind. Today’s internet provides vastly more access to information than ever before in human history, and the sheer power of decentralized ‘informational ecosystems,’ like social media platforms, have allowed passionate activists like Greta Thunberg to spark worldwide movements.
The dangerous thing about freely available (if you have access to the internet), decentralized, worldwide information sharing is that there is no restriction on it. The nature of the internet is such that ideas tend to self-replicate without any one definite proponent. This idea was first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’, now used to refer to the common internet phenomena, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.
In this groundbreaking manuscript, Dawkins proposed that, with a large enough human population, ideas could be seen to follow the same pattern as living organisms under conditions of natural selection, replicating and evolving independently of individual creators and fans. Dawkins argued that just as individual strands of DNA used life to reproduce, ideas used human brains to reproduce. Dawkins has seemingly been proven right by the modern internet, where your favorite memes have often evolved beyond the intent of their creators.
The perfect example of Dawkin’s self-propagating idea is Pepe the Frog. The cartoon frog character was created in 2005 by internet cartoonist Matt Furie. Initially completely harmless, Pepe was quickly adopted by internet groups associated with “Alt-Right” extremists as a symbol of hate.
Matt Furie opposed this co-opting and, in 2018, he successfully sued far-right conspiracy website, Infowars, for using Pepe’s image without securing the rights. Furie also decided he could not reclaim his character and killed him off. Still, in the past few months, Pepe has become a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong. Pro-Democracy protesters use the image to symbolize defiance against the Chinese government.
Many have asked how a single image can go from a cheerful cartoon frog, to a hate symbol recognized by the Anti-Defamation League, to a symbol of Democractic resistance. Some try to insist that the true meaning of Pepe is whatever one wants it to mean. This is precisely Dawkins’ point. The meme evolved beyond the intentions of any one person, even its creator.
No one can control the meaning of Pepe, and no one can ultimately claim to define it. The meme does not mean any one of these things because it means all of them: cartoon character, hate symbol, and hero of Democratic protests.
To be clear, I do not mean to say that the hateful meanings of Pepe can ever be outweighed by its other meaning. Anyone who chooses to use Pepe has no choice but to carry all of its connotations with it because, no matter their intention, those other meanings are still there. As Dawkins argued back in 1976, the selfish gene, or meme, evolves and rolls up every meaning it counters. At their most basic level ideas are just bundles of connotations. Each time that an idea or symbol gets used or shared, it adds connotations, just like when each new generation of living things adds new genetic variation. The idea rolls up all those connotations and experiences like a snowball rolling down a hill. You cannot separate any one meaning from the others any more than you can separate an individual grain of snow, because the idea is simply not yours, it is an independent force. It is using you to self-replicate, and if you choose to be a part of that process you accept responsibility for everything that image or idea represents.
So how does any of this relate to our high school experience? The story of Pepe the Frog shows just how volatile ideas can be. It’s not all bad, but it is not by any means all good either. Greta Thunberg and school strikes went viral, but so did racist propaganda. Symbols of hope and symbols of hate are all empowered by the virality of the meme, and the resulting chaos can be hard to understand. No one can control these ideas, but they can be used to manipulate you, and make your favorite YouTuber and advertisers huge amounts of money. The internet is an incredibly fertile environment for idea evolution, and modern tech companies, on the whole, have not improved the situation.
It has been shown that two people who Google the exact same phrase can get wildly different results based on their previous searches. If you find this hard to believe, try with a friend. The capitalist world is built to make a profit, and that means telling you what you want to hear. Google believes that you are more likely to keep using their platform if they broadcast the voices you agree with more than those you disagree with.
The things you do not see are still there, the same way an impact you might not have fully understood still happens. Worse than self-propagating ideas though, are those who intentionally deceive. Nobody else is checking the internet for you, so it is up to you to decipher the difference between truth, trickery, and ideas that are no longer grounded in demonstrable truth.
Use these tips to watch out for online disinformation:
1. Pay attention to the details
One of the oldest propaganda strategies that has been used since the days of ancient Athens, is to capture your opinion of a source in something other than the content. Everything from the background color of a website to the style of its menu to the shape of the buttons can create an implicit bias. An understated website with a white background and slim border lines looks professional and sleek, while an all black website with white text feels overwhelming and bold. A website with a professional, paid domain name seems more reliable than one with a free domain, and .orgs are considered more reliable than .coms.
None of this is necessarily true. Most website designers know your preconceptions and take advantage of them to build a website that makes you feel the way they want you to feel. Money does not buy accuracy, and anyone can buy a .org domain for about the same price as a .com.
Pay attention to even the most minor visual details and think critically about why those details were included. If you know what the designer wants you to think, that knowledge gives you more power to decide for yourself.
2. Be aware of how you feel
Online disinformation is not usually outright falsehood, but aims to confirm your preexisting fears and dislikes in order to manipulate you. When web designers can guess what those things are they can change how you think. If you find yourself reading content that makes you feel really scared or really angry, become more alert to how the author is making you feel this and think about why they are doing it.
3. Always check the sources
No idea exists in a vacuum, and neither can information. Any piece of writing that tries to provide you information, and even some fact-based opinion pieces, should provide you with sources for any claim to credibility. An online article that has no sources is probably suspect, and even articles with sources might be trying to mislead you with unreliable sources. Articles that reference Wikipedia or, even worse, blogs that reference other blogs, can be unreliable. Make the effort not just to check that there are sources but to actually read the links. Some blog authors will reference their own articles as sources in a meta loop to create the appearance of peer consensus without ever actually going outside one author’s viewpoint.
4. Question authority
The most dangerous tool in the book of an online disinformationist is false authority. If you assume that official, well-funded organizations should be trusted and will provide you with good information, you should not. Suspect us, suspect newspapers, suspect everyone all the time. No author is free from the prison of their own perspective, and we all put something of our experiences and opinions into our writing. Writing is the most efficient means humanity has for sharing experience and understanding, (The Craft of Research, Fourth Edition) but to be well-equipped you should always make an effort to recognize that bias and understand it.
Beware the trap of adhering to only one source of information to learn about our world.
If you doubt that any of this is real, remember this quote from one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” (https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/874602.Ursula_K_Le_Guin)