Quakers, fake news and the search for truth

37. Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do?

39. Consider which of the ways to happiness offered by society are truly fulfilling and which are potentially corrupting and destructive (Advices & Queries)

Quakers are also known as “seekers of truth”. How do we maintain that fundamental commitment to truth in an age of online misinformation and disinformation?

I attended an interesting seminar on this by the Frontline Club. The volume of misinformation (which pays no heed to the truth) and disinformation (deliberate falsehood) online is huge. It has serious effects: on the health of our society, on our mental health and on specific civic institutions which are routinely attacked and undermined.

It seems there are two main sources: state actors seeking to manipulate public opinion in their own and other countries. And self-interested individuals seeking to amplify their traffic and revenues, typically for online advertising, for quack cures, or specific causes and campaigns.

It helps to understand this; by understanding the source and motive we are better equipped to spot and block it.

We become the problem when we amplify misinformation or disinformation by sharing it in case others are interested. So if we see something controversial, scandalous or sensational – whether about Obama, Dr Antony Fauci, a scandalous celebrity, coronavirus, 5G networks – we should take the responsibility of fact checking it and verifying the credentials and motives of the source before sharing it with anyone who might be taken in.

This is time-consuming to do well oneself, but there are excellent fact-checking services such as Snopes in the US or FullFact in the UK. The Wikipedia maintains a longer list of fact checking services here.

For all its faults the Wikipedia itself operates pretty effectively as a fact-checking service at scale, with legions of editors scanning vast swathes of topics and pouncing on and correcting huge amounts of  wrong information.

If we’re not prepared or lack the skills to fact check it ourselves we might just block the source (whether Facebook, Twitter or an unreliable email list). Facebook has a huge amount to answer for in this; its model of centralised for-profit surveillance capitalism is not the Internet we want.

The warning signs for fake online news include sensational claims, unverified sources, and references to individuals who stand to gain from more attention. The remedies are: ignore, block, fact check, do not share, unsubscribe, unfollow.

Quakerism was formed in an earlier era of unprecedented misinformation and disinformation, with often unreliable printed pamphlets widely available. Quaker testimony and practice and the distilled wisdom on which we can draw provide a very sound basis for combatting fake news. We need to stay focussed on the still small voice of calm.

How to spot fake news by Intl Fedn of Library Associations and Institutions (via Wikipedia article Fake News on the Internet

UPDATE: Some misinformation scams can include dangerous links (including phishing scams and malware). This article lists several services that let you safely check whether a link is known to be dangerous. It’s much safer than clicking the link yourself to see what happens.


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