During my doctoral orientation week “Closing Ceremonies” (Fall 2008), a professor suddenly pivoted from his previously demonstrated jocular and welcoming weeklong attitude, and with a somber tone, addressed our cohort.
“Congratulations again on this tremendous academic journey you have chosen. Although a relatively new area of research and study, Media Psychology, I believe, is poised to prove itself among the most significant, and exciting areas in the psychological field. If you are here, then I am confident-and impressed-that you agree. That said, I am going to challenge you with an impossible task…”
(What I wrote above is a paraphrase, but how I remember it.)
He went on to explain that historically, consumers received their information and news from (arguably) credible outlets (i.e., newspapers, television, and radio). Although he “reminded” us that there have been historically potentially “fake news” dangerous “forces” behind some of these assumedly “reliable” information silos (i.e., 19th century media titans like William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, believed to have leveraged their publishing power to promote personal agendas, sensationalize global events, and even “cancel” their enemies), we could mostly trust “All The News That (Was) Fit To Print,” and certainly Walter Cronkite told it to us straight, right?
Moving forward, the professor warned, a “new” type of information pundit wannabe was about to potentially become the most powerful “influencer” in terms of generating, shaping, and even manipulating public opinion. He explained how the Internet and its apps, platforms, websites, and blogs would increasingly continue to avail virtually (pun intended) ANYONE to create whatever content they desired, which could be viewed, shared, and spread with infinite latitude. In the spirit of critical thinking, he assured us that an unprecedented largesse of legitimate information would be delivered with the mere strike of a few keystrokes, but that within that vast plethora of good news and knowledge—would be woven immeasurable amounts of unfiltered, unvetted, and/or unfettered opinions, manipulations, and even nefarious nonsense.
Finally, he cautioned, social media sites would potentially become the most reckless and risky hosts of something called #FakeNews which, in pre-Internet days, I believe we Digital Immigrants called gossip, rumors, outright lies, character assassinations, or when driven by the most odious of objectives: absolute and total social, career, reputation, and/or relational annihilation of our enemies.
Thus, the impossible challenge with which our esteemed teacher was tasking us newly-minted Media Psychologist-elects was (a) to accept that the Internet and all who are engaged with it are now pioneer citizens of a limitless and lawless unprecedented new “Wild West,” (b) previously established IRL rules of decent behavior would most likely be neither desired nor enforced, (c) untold numbers of creators would fancy themselves “Butch-Byte Cassidys” and even more concerning, potentially attract untold numbers of impressionable “Sundance Cyber-Kids” to “follow” and endorse their opinions, and finally, (d) to somehow discover some way to legitimize, educate, boundary, and hold accountable this Digiverse-which by its inherent design, was fertile and free territory for illegitimate, uneducated, and boundless homesteading by its pioneer and often rogue minded citizenry.
A tall order, he admitted. Indeed! And one, he compassionately confessed, at which he expected we would (truly of no fault of our own) ultimately fail.
Still, he passionately encouraged us to do our best to try.
“Who knows,” he proposed, and continued to champion the cause by reminding us that our chosen field of study was as equally nascent as the Internet and the potential dangers vis-a-vis he portended. Perhaps, he posited, we could grow, learn, and develop a future together in harmony and intelligent Internet sharing for global enlightenment, unity, community building, healthy partnerships, and authentic information collaboration and distribution.
He was not optimistic about the chances of that ever happening. But still charged us with giving it our best shot.
Of course, in the dozen+ years since our professor’s sobering knowledge drop, we have seen his concerns to be correct. Along with the miraculous gifts the Internet offers, and the important and legitimate information it hosts, the amount of misinformation (false information, disinformation, and malinformation), that it also serves up is not only disturbingly increasing but also serving to dangerously disrupt -and sometimes even just plain “dis”-across just about every aspect of our very lives.
A 2020 report identified events of organized disinformation in 81 countries, and it is reasonable to assume that this finding is underreported or at least more prolific. The issue has become such a “hot topic,” universities have begun to offer courses exploring its impact and in a big swing attempt, spawned (in part) the European Union earlier this year to legislate the Digital Services Act
Across the silos of politics, commerce, health, relationships, communities, academic curricula and policies, human rights, respect, tolerance, domestic and international wellbeing, psychological stability, and safety, and even the literal sustainable future of life on our planet, the opprobriously motivated—or even perhaps completely unintended/unintentional but still injurious-mediated contributions of trolls, bots, cyborgs, extremists, foreign interferers, shady politicos, or just about any Internet Engager really, have now become isotopic weapons of potential mass destruction. An arguably dramatic comparison, I realize, but even when just considering the recent alleged digitally-driven fake narratives regarding elections, the events of January 6, 2021, Covid 19, vaccinations, and the horrifying war in Ukraine, I believe we have learned not to judge a Facebook by its cover stories (Bobby Allen, 2021).
When Sir Francis Bacon wrote in Meditationes Sacrae (1597) that “knowledge itself is power,” he most likely wanted “to transmit the idea that having and sharing knowledge is the cornerstone of reputation and influence, and therefore power…” (italics in original, Leonard Azamfirei, 2016). In 2022, this concept has been seriously skewed at best. The “having and sharing knowledge” can mean different things today—especially in an increasingly digitizing world where “sharing” does not always mean “caring.” The rules of social media appear to be “Anything Goes.” “Influencers” believe they wield the power, but the power, in fact, is actually controlled by a cabal of tech barons with little interest in anything more than capitalizing upon ensuring that we are held captivatingly captive on their web(sites)—no matter the ethics, code, or cost.
Some posit (Andrew Guess & Benjamin Lyons, 2020; Fillipo Menczer & Thomas Hills, 2020) that the most notorious culprits of this problem are the architects and users of social media sites. According to a Pew (2021) investigation, nearly 50% of U.S. adults reported getting their news via social media platforms.
A 2018 study reported that, regardless of intent, fake news travels with more alacrity on Twitter and reaches more people through that platform than “real” news. These data become even more significant in light of Elon Musk’s (in a seemingly Charles Kane-centric media-controlling power grab) dramatic play to purchase the popular platform, with a promise to remodel it into a place for unconstrained free speech to be shared-as long, of course, as it doesn’t violate the law. This goal itself remains a tricky policy for a global site as U.S. laws vary vastly from those of other countries and they in turn from one another. Although Ex-Amazonian patriarch Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire are debatable contenders, Twitter’s global influence is potentially larger and more potent than any Hearst publication could ever have hoped to have been.
Following his ban from Twitter in 2021, former President Donald Trump uploaded his own social media platform “Truth Social” on 21 February 2022. The app that bills itself as “free from political discrimination immediately shot to the top of Apple’s most-downloaded list. But complaints of difficult and even buggy registration process, long waitlists, and signing-up glitches failed its launch; Then after falling in popularity, suddenly in April, the app shot up again to the top of the app store. Whether this new traction can be correlated with Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter earlier that same week, or some other reason(s) is uncertain, along with its future appeal and growth potential, and promise of publishing authentic and non-biased content (Nell Clark, 2022).
Facebook has been accused of—and investigated multiple times for—allowing misinformation (and worse) to be published on their site. Allegations that TikTok’s lack of appropriate and safe video content publishing oversight possibly correlated with severe teen emotional dysregulation and maladaptive behaviors (including disordered eating and even self-harm), has been the topic of prolific discussion as well, including a deep dive investigation by The Wall Street Journal and resulting in the social platform (currently owned and managed by China-based internet company “ByteDance”) “promising” to “adjust” its algorithm to avoid further potential negative reinforcement (Liza Lin, 2021).
With the goal of full transparency, although not in any way compensated, I was invited to offer my professional input on one part of the WSJ inquiry (see Julie Jargon, 2021).
It appears reasonable to assume that anyone with even a modicum of Internet facility is aware of its dangers. With the goal of not further contributing to the problem, but instead honoring my professor’s plea to at least try to edify and inform through the lens of Media Psychology, along with the citations above, I have included below links to several legitimate resources which comprehensively discuss the issue. More importantly, they offer unbiased education and suggestions on how to identify and support amending—or cauterizing—the spread of any digitized content appearing to be even slightly sketchy in terms of its authenticity, accuracy, or agenda.
Although it may feel as if the problem is too tsunamic to even consider solving, I believe what my professor years ago was attempting to instill in us was first an awareness that it was coming (it’s now, of course, here), and then inspire us as Media Psychologists to put our student loan money where our mouths are and try our best to be of service through our chosen profession. I admit that I have not yet discovered how to combat the malignance on any grand scale but do try daily to give it my best shot through a grassroots campaign of education and illumination. Thus, my motivation for writing this column. Helping others recognize and understand how mediated content can affect, impact, inform, change, and persuade—whether intended for good, bad, or ugly—is a compelling and valiantly vital purpose, which for us, as Media Psychologists, has never felt more necessary, current, or exciting.
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do. – Gandhi
For more information/resources, I suggest the following: