A Few Thoughts on Fighting Disinformation

What’s the best way to fight disinformation? I feel like musing on this, but first a disclaimer: I’m not involved in the MoJo disinformation project and I don’t know what the plan for this is. What follows are just some miscellaneous thoughts on the subject, sort of an attempt to think a little bit outside the standard blog box. There are several questions that are key to any project like this.

What persuades people?

  • Generally speaking, not facts.
  • People listen to others who share their values.
  • Don’t make people feel bad. “That was reasonable at the time, but things have changed” is better than “You’re wrong.”
  • No hectoring. No guilting.

It’s worth diving into the research on how best to persuade people. I haven’t done that, so I don’t have any concrete advice here. But whatever you decide on, you need the self-discipline to stick with it. You can’t just write/tweet/video whatever liberal pieties you feel strongly about. You have to treat this like it’s a product that needs to be rigorously marketed.

Who’s the audience?

  • Fellow liberals. This is the easiest since liberals already read MoJo, but the downsides are big: we already do a lot of disinformation fighting; other liberal publications do a lot of it too; and liberals already mostly agree with us anyway. Targeting liberals would probably have a very small payback.
  • Trump followers. Probably hopeless. They don’t read MoJo, they’re not going to read MoJo, and they’re nearly impossible to sway.
  • The general public. Perhaps. But this would require a very evenhanded approach and some awfully good SEO to build any kind of audience.
  • The news media. The idea here is to quickly produce interesting tidbits they’re unlikely to find on their own, and then use them as the conduit to your real audience.
  • Conservative elites. These people do get exposed to things on sites like MoJo, so it’s not impossible to reach them. However, this would obviously require a very different kind of approach than our usual one. The disinformation fighting would have to appeal to conservative values and staunchly resist any temptation to criticize conservatives themselves or conservative ideology.
  • A niche. Housewives, young single men without college degrees, stockbrokers, etc.

There are pluses and minuses to all these approaches, but there’s one thing for sure: you have to settle on an audience and stick with it.

What’s the best medium?

  • Writing (blog-length)
  • Still photos
  • Video
  • Twitter
  • Instagram/Facebook/Pinterest/Snapchat

The obvious platform for an outfit like MoJo is writing—either at blog or article length. But that isn’t necessarily the best way to fight disinformation. Maybe a daily stream of 60-second videos would be better. Nothing fancy, just quick takes that people find interesting but also manage to embed two or three useful facts. Or maybe a Twitter feed:

This is nonthreatening and not overtly ideological. What’s more, there’s no reason every tweet has to be political. In fact, it might be easier to build up an audience if it’s a mixed bag. Alternatively, a different social network might be better depending on who you’re targeting.

What else?

Whatever the format, should you spend most of your time reacting to lies? Lots of other people already do this, and a lot of research suggests that it accomplishes little except to give more publicity to the original lie. Or should you try to anticipate which lies are coming, and react to them in advance? Or something else?

What’s the best way to measure how effective something is? Things like retweets or views are obviously useful metrics, but how do you know if you’re changing minds? Maybe there’s no good way to do this that’s worth the effort it would take, but it’s probably something to give some thought to.

Can you enlist a corps of experts who are willing to provide a dozen interesting bullet points on a topic when they’re called on?

The goal should be to slowly build sympathy for a point of view. Only then will facts and rebuttals start to matter. For example, a simple link to a story of a Hispanic soldier rescuing a squadmate, without even mentioning ethnicity. You’re just building a positive association between a name and an action.