2020 and the early events of 2021 have shown us that where and how we get our news, along with our ability to distinguish factual information from misleading or incorrect information, can make a big difference in our world. From public health to politics and beyond, the flow of information into our lives influences our thinking, behaviors and decisions.
This matters at all levels of public life, but especially at the local level for a community like Wayne County. Gossip about whether a certain store or restaurant is open or closed (and why) can seriously affect that business and their employees. How accurately and authentically we might represent an elected official’s words and actions can affect the confidence that residents have in the people who represent and lead us. Conversations about the science of a virus and the precautions needed in response can literally turn into life and death decisions by the people around us. And so on.
Helping our community slow the spread of misinformation and pay more attention to what’s based in fact is a small but important way we can all contribute to a better quality of life for everyone here.
So what are some specific actions each of us can take to reduce misinformation in 2021?
Here are five to consider:
- Don’t amplify or circulate gossip, speculation and unsourced statements. Whether it’s a comment on social media or an article link that seems interesting, if there’s no supporting information from first hand sources, journalists or scientists to help verify it, don’t spread it around. (Don’t even share it just to say that it’s suspect or incorrect! Repeating false info still reinforces it, and tells the algorithms at Facebook and other social media platforms that something might be worth reading. If you must, take a screenshot and share that instead.)
- Leave Facebook groups that trade in speculation. Some people in the Wayne County area get their news and information from what they see go by on Facebook, and there are now several Facebook groups that actively engage in circulating speculation, gossip and misinformation about our communities. It may be interesting to watch this go by, but if you allow your Facebook profile to be a member of one of these groups, you are essentially lending it credibility. Facebook will even show your Facebook friends the fact that you are a member of that group, and may suggest that your friends also join. You can help take the wind out of some of these problematic conversations by leaving those Facebook groups behind and avoiding any engagement with their conversations.
- Support local journalism. Reporters at the Western Wayne News and the Palladium-Item use journalistic standards for finding and sharing information about Wayne County. They are expected to confirm any significant news with multiple sources, to fact check any claims that might be important, and to serve the interest of keeping people informed with accurate information that’s placed in proper context. You don’t have to agree with everything they report or what they report on to support their work through a paid subscription, if you’re able.
- Get in the habit of asking each other for more information behind the news and opinions we are sharing. If we only ask our friends and family, “can I see your source on that?!?!” when something is controversial, it can feel like a jarring attack. But if we get in the regular practice of encouraging the sharing of data and information behind an assertion someone makes, even one we find perfectly agreeable, then it will be less jarring to do it when the stakes are higher. Here, practice with me: “Hey, that’s an interesting theory! Do you have any more information about the thinking behind it?” Or, how about this one: “It sounds like I should read more about that, can you point me to the reports you’ve been reading?” Not too hard, right? Even if they can’t share a source or the source is wrong, it creates a stronger foundation for future conversations.
- Consume at least one information source that shares viewpoints you disagree with. Go through the mental exercises of understanding what exactly is being said, why you might disagree with it, what process someone might have used to come to that viewpoint, what evidence there is to support or refute it, and so on. It may feel frustrating or even futile, but keeping that critical thinking “muscle” in good shape will help us have better conversations with our neighbors and serve us well in the long-term. And, since we may be asking others to do the same critical examination of what they’re sharing, it can also build our own empathy for what that process feels like.
These are just five ways to help reduce the spread of misinformation in our community. They’re small but meaningful actions that, if we all tried to do at least a few of on a regular basis, might help all of Wayne County be a better place to live. In some cases, they might even help save lives.
Do you have other suggestions for reducing the spread of misinformation in our area? Please share in the comments!