Our Era of Endemic Misinformation and Disinformation

Why and how we go here, and what’s tech companies’ role in it?

We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

I talked about the role of social media in breaking down what social scientists call “pluralistic ignorance”—the belief that one is alone in one’s views when in reality everyone has been collectively silenced. That, I said, was why social media had fomented so much rebellion: people who were previously isolated in their dissent found and drew strength from one another.

Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands. This is a hard lesson of history but a solid one. It is key to understanding how, in seven years, digital technologies have gone from being hailed as tools of freedom and change to being blamed for upheavals in Western democracies—for enabling increased polarization, rising authoritarianism, and meddling in national elections by Russia and others.

It was true that social media let dissidents know they were not alone, but online microtargeting could also create a world in which you wouldn’t know what messages your neighbors were getting or how the ones aimed at you were being tailored to your desires and vulnerabilities.

There are certainly steps to be taken in the digital realm. The weak antitrust environment that allowed a few giant companies to become near-monopolies should be reversed. However, merely breaking up these giants without changing the rules of the game online may simply produce a lot of smaller companies that use the same predatory techniques of data surveillance, microtargeting, and “nudging."

The American Bar Association describes language justice as a “framework” that preserves people’s rights “to communicate, understand, and be understood in the language in which they prefer and feel most articulate and powerful.”

Equality would mean “operating in a world where interpretation and translation is just the norm,” she says. “We don’t ask whether there’s enough budgeting for it, we don’t question if it’s important or it’s valuable, because we prioritize it when it comes to the legislative table and public spaces.”

I have very mixed feelings about this, on one hand, the US government has the responsibility to make voting, the court system, and other functions of the government as easy and accessible to everybody as possible. I have no problem with any government entities hiring translators.

But on the other hand, translating and diffusing misinformation on social media take a tremendous amount of time and effort from highly trained professionals. Anybody who has talked to folks who were infused in Chinese misinformation on WeChat should understand what I’m talking about.

I believe that for a multiracial and multicultural society like the US, it is important that people from different ethnic backgrounds be able to communicate. I want to be able to understand what my fellow citizens think, talk to them, and possibly befriend them, regardless of where they were originally from. I think a shared language is critical for a diverse society to function well and not fall into constant conflicts and misunderstandings between racial groups. After all, humans are tribal animals, effective communication promotes trust and overall social cohesion.

The public discourse in the US is already highly fractured and polarized, I worry that making it multilingual would further divide it.

Thus I think citizens should bear some responsibility to learn English and assimilate if they don’t want themselves and their children excluded from the public discourse.

What do you think?

Let’s take a look at Singapore’s language planning. I think it can serve as a role model for other multi-racial, multi-ethnic societies.

The Bilingual Policy encourages Singaporeans to be proficient in both the English language, and in their respective ethnic mother tongues, which include Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Bilingual education is provided by the Ministry of Education in Singapore.

Racial harmony is a stated policy of the Singaporean government, and a racial harmony day is even celebrated.[8] Usage of four official languages is an element of policy designed to promote racial harmony, as is bilingualism in accordance with the belief that the ethnic language is the “carrier of culture” while English is the “language of commerce”, a choice motivated by the fact that English had historically been the language of the colonial administration, while being the native language of few Singaporeans at the time of the policy’s implementation.[9] With English as the lingua franca, no one ethnicity is favored, but the cultures are preserved. The idea behind this policy is that treating all languages as standard and thus equally prestigious will result in the speakers of each language being treated equally.

Singapore’s language ideology:

Language Ideology[edit]

There were two prominent language ideologies that the Singapore government adopted:

  • Internationalisation
    • It entails the adoption of a non-indigenous language as an official language. The Singapore government adopted a non-indigenous language, English, to exist alongside the indigenous languages of Singapore.
  • Linguistic Pluralism
    • It entails a recognition and support of the co-existence of multiple languages within society.
    • Some believe it to be in contrast with the language ideology of linguistic assimilation, where every member of the speech community, regardless of his first language, must learn the dominant language of the society where he lives in.[2]

Back in 2015 when I was hanging out with my German “amigo”, I overheard some Europeans were hesitant about “forcing” refugees to learn their languages. The naïveté…

In an alternative universe, a more “woke” Singapore could have dropped English because it was the “language of colonialism”. That would have been stupid. LKY, although he ruled with an iron fist, certainly was right about this: a multi-ethnic society should have a common denominator (while preserving each ethnicity’s own language). Even better if that denominator is the lingua franca.

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Vast majority of people in UK, US, France and Germany think it is very/somewhat important to be able to speak the country’s dominant language to truly be a British, American, etc.

Surprised to find only 77% of Americans it’s very/somewhat important to speak the dominant language to belong to a country, I would assume the 23% who doesn’t think so are very woke democrats.

Turns out, they indeed are woke democrats! Only 54% of Democrats think it’s very/somewhat important for people to speak the dominant language. US Democrats have a fairly distinctive attitude among the left in developed nations.

As if politically, we haven’t suffered enough from misinformation just a while ago, we Democrats just can’t get enough of isolated online spaces for misinformation to grow!

Imagine the shock the Democrats felt when they found out a fair number of Vietnamese, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Chinese immigrants shifted to Donald Trump after all 4 years and how quickly they forgot about it.

I seriously doubt isolated language bubbles benefit the left, as pretty much all immigrants in the US are from more culturally conservative countries than the US. The rampart racism and sexism on WeChat give me headaches, and the American left at large seem to have no idea…

The WEIRDest people don’t tend to think they are the weird ones, and I get the feeling that they think all minorities are as woke as them.