On the morning of the election, I called a family member to discuss the day ahead. I knew this family member to be a Republican — most of my family is. As a progressive from a small town in Bible Belt Alabama, I’ve made it my mission to call out my Republican family members and Facebook friends on their prejudice. I also actively seek to understand why the people that I was raised alongside think and vote the way that they do. The morning of November 3rd, I was doing just that. I was calling to ask: “Why are you voting for Trump?”
My family member answered: “That Kamala woman is a Muslim and I fully believe that if Biden becomes president the persecution of the Christians in this country will spiral out of control.”
I was shocked. Not necessarily at the words themselves — this has become pretty standard right-wing discourse on brown and Black women and Democrats in general. Rather, I was shocked that it came from this particular member of my family.
Being from a deeply red county in a deeply red state, I am no stranger to dis- and misinformation. I often spar with former high school classmates and family friends over Facebook on the lies they share as “fact.” This family member though, while on Facebook, is extremely apolitical. It took weeks of prodding to finally get them to answer my one question. The fact that this family member, who is in no way an extremist, so wholeheartedly believed what they were saying shows just how deeply entrenched dis- and misinformation is in the daily lives of millions of Americans.
There will always be those that choose to believe conspiracies or push opinions as fact in order to embrace and empower their own worldviews. What is most dangerous about the most zealous disseminators of dis- and misinformation is their ability to sway the less radical.
Social media platforms in general, and Facebook specifically, have allowed conspiracy theories to run rampant, only recently fact-checking following increased scrutiny. This is something most people see and often shrug off. We feel that that person is too far removed from our immediate social circle to matter or that it is more trouble than it is worth to get into an argument online. In reality, these conspiracies are much closer than we realize, as the conversation with my family member shows. “The call is coming from inside the house” as they say. Instead of figuratively locking ourselves inside the bathroom, shying away from the inevitable confrontation, we should be going after that “killer” to protect those we are closest to.
Engaging with misinformation, however, can be an exhausting and discouraging experience. I recently posted on Facebook: “I am so tired. Circular-reasoning and a lack of critical thinking skills are a dangerous combination. What are we supposed to do when people refuse to believe in facts? How do we combat radicalization and conspiracy?”
I received a range of responses, including words of encouragement from others fighting misinformation on their timelines and an aunt who told me affectionately, “Don’t get into a puking contest with a buzzard.” But I also received a twenty-minute video of Tucker Carlson claiming there was rampant voter fraud and suppression from a childhood friend.
I have gotten into several arguments with this particular friend over the past few weeks. I consistently bring facts and evidence to the table, which he writes off as liberal fake news. Those arguments are what inspired my lamenting post. But convincing this friend is not the point. There will always be those that choose to believe conspiracies or push opinions as fact in order to embrace and empower their own worldviews. What is most dangerous about the most zealous disseminators of dis- and misinformation is their ability to sway the less radical, as explored by psychologists like Rainer Greifeneder. Most of us are not going to ruthlessly fact check every post which appears on our timelines; without this fact-checking, inundation is inevitable (case in point: the family member mentioned above). By sitting by and allowing misinformation to fester and rot in the minds of those on the fence, we — those who know the information to be false yet nevertheless allow its uninterrupted perpetuation — enable the injustice that arises from it. We become complicit.
It is our collective duty to confront, attack, and upend misinformation. If not us, who? We cannot assume that the crisis of dis- and misinformation will disappear or lose influence with time or stricter systematic fact-checking; the explosive popularity of the purportedly “non-biased, free speech platform” Parler makes this quite clear. Yes, conversing with those who disagree with us is painful, and it is often easier to not have that conversation. Unfortunately, we cannot simply write off the millions of Americans who propagate dangerous beliefs, not for their sake necessarily, but the sake of all those who they may influence, whose beliefs may not yet be solidified. More specifically, it is the duty of the privileged (white, cis Americans) who occupy adjacent spaces to propagators of dis- and misinformation to leverage that privilege in order to have those conversations.
Dis- and misinformation is here to stay. It is in our house, it is in our friend groups, it is even in our most intimate relationships. While it feels futile and is often exhausting, we must collectively work to address it whenever and wherever it appears. It is the only way.
William R. Jones (he/him) is a first-year doctoral student at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford researching experiences of sexual violence against men during the Holocaust. He focuses on the nexus of gender identity, sexuality, masculinity, and power in such violence. From 2018-2019, he was a Fulbright Scholar to Germany.