Cynicism, Not Gullibility, Will Kill Our Humanity

I’ve mentioned before that students come into the misinfo classes we teach more or less not trusting things. Here’s student trust in four stories they should have low trust in:

Level one there is low trust. And that’s where the students are.

That’s the dubious prompts, so that would be good if that was the end of the story. But of course they don’t trust anything fully (or distrust anything fully). Here’s some stories they should trust in blue next to the dubious ones:

That’s right — nationally reported, well-sourced stories get equal trust levels to child sex-trafficking conspiracies broadly debunked by all reputable press and all levels of government. A level that equates to “There might be something there but I don’t really trust it.”

Why does this matter? It matters because of this:

Photo by Reuters photographer Kim Hyung-Hoon

This is a photograph of what’s going on at the border in America’s name. Maybe you agree with it, but actually most Americans don’t. That is, assuming they think the photo is trustworthy. 

But of course, a lot of people are out there saying the photo is not trustworthy:

The vast majority of students don’t engage in this level of conspiracy theorizing. But exposure to this stuff over time, combined with no instruction on how to sort trustworthy information from untrustworthy information in a networked environment  leads to that undifferentiated suspicion that we see towards everything.

Gullibility can do real damage, as we see with some people who consume a daily diet of toxic fakery. But for the median citizen — and especially our youth — I am far more worried about the corrosive effects of cynicism.

Major advances in the U.S. — from civil rights to the social safety net — have been driven by the public being confronted with the consequences of their inaction or action and having to reckon with that. But if everything is worthy of low trust at best, you never need to confront the impacts of policy or politics or personal action. Uncertainty — hey, I did hear about that but who knows what’s true anyway — acts as a cutural novacaine, allowing one to persist in inaction, even as evidence mounts of effects that that same individual might find repugnant — if, you know, it turn out to be really true. Like, really, really true. And who knows?

The depressing thing is that there are methods that can help with this undifferentiated cynicism but we aren’t rolling them out to students. Remember the graph above showing the undifferentiated cynicism? Here it is again, the dubious prompts in red, the trustworthy in blue, for a variety of misinformation and disinformation across the political spectrum:

Not good. But here’s how students do after our “four moves” style instruction:

For reference, a three for most of these trustworthy prompts is a good answer, so this is an incredible amount of differentiation. That’s after just four hours. More details here.

Most of what we give students today doesn’t get students anywhere near this of course. Some of it probably makes them worse at this stuff — so much of the free text comments of students that got this stuff wrong used language that was straight out of an information literacy session they had had at some point (more on that later).

But we could give students this, if we wanted to. And if we want to retain our capacity to be unsettled — the driver of so much of the politics that has improved this country and others — giving them this is essential.

In the Web’s Hyperreality, Information Is Experience

A neighbor was sweeping his sidewalk, pushing tiny white rocks back into his rock garden. The sky was an uninterrupted blue. A mailman worked his way up the empty street. There were no signs of “Sharia Law.” The migrant caravan was still hundreds of miles away in Mexico. Antifa protesters had yet to descend on Pahrump. Chapian squinted against the sun, closed the shades and went back to her screen.

 — Description of Shirley Chapian, consumer and believer of near-apocalyptic right-wing disinformation, from ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America (WaPo)

I have a few thoughts on the recent Washington Post piece on misinformation, which follows both a purveyor of it and a consumer of it. I’m breaking those thoughts into a few posts. This is number one.

It’s a doozy.

One note — I should be clear to people reading this who don’t know my deep hatred of conspiracy theory — 9/11 happened. Charlottesville happened. The Access Hollywood tape is real. If you think otherwise you’re a bit of a dope. That’s the whole point of using the examples I use below.

It’s amazing I have to say this stuff, but I choose these events as examples because they are real and yet our experience of them is surprisingly ungrounded, and that level of ungroundedness presents cultural vulnerabilities that are exploited by bad actors. Stick with me, folks. Read it to the end.

Facts and Downstream Beliefs

In misinformation, you’ll often hear it said that “facts” don’t really change downstream actions much. 

This is true, in a very contained sort of way. If you believe nuclear power is safe, and I show you evidence it is not and then ask you what you think we should do about nuclear power, the chances are your answer will not change much. In fact, your knowledge may increase, but your larger beliefs about nuclear power will likely not move, at least in the short term. This is one of the more established facts of political science.

People are really resistant to changing their minds (unless, of course, you tell them a new idea is what they have always thought, but more on that in later posts). We have a status quo bias of sorts when it comes to our identity, and we’re not going to start ripping up the floorboards of our self-conception because someone forwarded us some new press clippings. Identity and experience is what really shifts our thinking, and as such people are (rightly) skeptical that headlines reading “California Wildfires due to Global Warming Say Experts” are going to turn us all into a cap-and-trade evangelists.

But reading the Washington Post story, I think it’s clear that this model of disinformation — as primarily changing beliefs — is wrong for much of what’s going on.

Experience Alters Identity, and Identity Action

Did 9/11 change you? It changed me. Not immediately, but over time. Like nearly everybody, I remember the day well. My wife drove me to work, our two year old in the back seat. For some reason the car radio had flipped to a Spanish station and they were talking excitedly. Nicole went to change it and I joked no, leave it there, give our daughter some exposure to Spanish.

“What do you think they are so excited about?” Nicole asked.

I walked into the office, ready to crank out some educational software and saw people huddled around some of the TVs we used for previewing educational video clips.

“What’s going on?” I asked, seeing the now famous footage on TV.

“Basically, we’re under attack.” said one of my co-workers.

I was a libertarian anti-war kid who believed most geo-political threats were blown out of proportion, who had opposed everything from the Gulf War to Kosovo, and openly scoffed at Clinton’s attempted Bin Laden strike as a wag-the-dog response to the Lewinsky scandal. I didn’t become a pro-war booster, of course, but the experience shattered my ideological simplicity. Temporarily, at least, it made me less vocally anti-war. Again, not pro-war — but far less confident about my own opinions for a short period of time.

That day is the big one for a lot of people, but think of how many other events shaped your life. The death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. The shooting at Tree of Life. Dylann Roof and that Confederate flag. The images of Katrina. The pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis. The shooting of Philando Castile. The Access Hollywood bus tape.

It would be folly, I think, in a world where the gender gap in politics has reached historic levels, to think that that Access Hollywood tape hasn’t had a part in framing what has come since. That Heather Heyer’s death didn’t push the ACLU to rethink its mission. That Castile’s death didn’t alter, at least incrementally, the sense of urgency around police violence. That even smaller things — like the President’s comment that there were fine people on both sides — hasn’t altered the way we can frame and not frame events. 

Political scientists are a cynical bunch about change and causality, but you won’t find political scientists that say that events don’t matter at all. Matter less than we think, matter only in certain circumstances. But from Watergate to the sinking of the Lusitania to Pearl Harbor to the death of Emmett Till, events have changed the political landscape in both subtle and profound ways.

These cultural experiences shape us and change what is politically possible. Not overnight, but, like the bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises, gradually, then suddenly.  Even 9/11, one remembers, found itself amplified by the DC sniper, the ricin letters, the slow confluence of events that built a narrative of a world out of control. Together they made it politically possible to advance a war that wreaked untold suffering on both Iraqis and our soldiers, that made leaders unembarrassed to share new waterboarding authoritarian fantasies with pride.

I didn’t support the Iraq War, of course. For me, it was a matter of disagreeing but too noncommittally. Too much deference to writers I should have ignored. Too much of the then Slate-inflected on-the-other-hand distance, from about 2001 to early 2003. For others, it moved them into far darker places from which we still have yet to escape. (Others of course, were not knocked off balance at all , and I salute them).

But added together, the shifts were enough to change history, not just of the U.S., but of the world.

And yet, for most people, their primary experience of these events was through screens, websites, and print. One of the defining emotional experiences of any person my age’s life, and it was essentially information.

Information Is Experience

Years ago, Baudrillard made a compelling argument that the nature of reality had shifted over the course of human history, due to a shift in the way simulation relates to experience. According to him, first order simulation — the more common simulation of the past — represents things but maintains a boundary. I draw a picture of you the best I can, and hang it up.  I make a map of the road to my house and hand it to you. You look at these as copies of reality and judge the fidelity of them to the source.

We’ll skip over second order simulation, to jump to this: by the time you get to third order simulation, the relationship of mediation to what is “real” has changed. The simulation doesn’t mediate reality as much as create it. For the vast majority, the reality of most of what you know about 9/11 or Charlottesville or Castile is never verified against any non-mediated reality. In turn, that created reality informs your physical experience, rightly or wrongly. My perspective of a recent “patriot” group that came onto campus, for example, was more influenced by the death of Heather Heyer than anything that happened on campus, and the digital reality I had been exposed to shaped that experience.

In the world of Baudrillard’s hyperreal, information is experience. And as such, the standard old-school experimental psychology tests — “Here’s some information about global warming, how do you feel about regulation now?” and the standard negative campaigning studies don’t really apply to what where seeing right now. They don’t even come close.

Digital Experience Frames Non-Digital Experience

Imagine your parent dies, or, if you’ve been so unlucky, think back on the death of a parent. This is an event that seems relatively unmediated, very real, very raw.

But what if you had found out, directly after their death, that the death was not inevitable? That as a matter of fact your parent had been misdiagnosed, was not in fact sick at all, and had been prescribed an accidentally lethal dose of medication by a doctor too drunk to even stand up?

Would your life change? Would it be different? Would your perspective on health care change? Would your narrative about this your parent’s life change? Would your identity change?

Some varieties of experimental psychology applied to disinformation would say no. It’s just information, it doesn’t change your opinions or beliefs. But of course it’s not just information. It’s experience, and the experience of having a parent die due to the negligence of a drunk doctor is fundamentally different than the experience of believing they died of lung cancer caused by earlier smoking.

If this seems over the top, consider that this is the experience of parents who have kids with autism, who daily must convince themselves that their child’s lifetime of struggle is not due to their decision to vaccinate them, or the greed of Big Pharma. It’s the experience of a person who doesn’t get a needed job and believes it is due to affirmative action policies they’ve read about, meme-ified across the web.

And it’s the experience of Chapian, where the stuff that she is reading online connects with nothing in her life, and yet it is the digital world that is more real. 

This is not just about Chapian, of course. It is an unavoidable consequence of the world we inhabit. I care deeply about children separated at the border, have broken down in heaving sobs over the Tree of Life slaughter. Yet, the realness of these things for me is not as much mediated as it is created by the media I consume, and my experience of that reality is not fundamentally different than local events I hear about.

This is not necessarily a bad thing — as a person with a great deal of privilege, to trust only what is outside my window as reality would be ethically dubious at best. But the stream of digital information that reaches people is experience, both on its own — without any connection to daily life whatsoever — and as powerful frame for what they experience daily. Mucking with that stream of information doesn’t just change what I know, it changes my life history. It changes what happens to me. 

Not What Would It Mean To Believe, But What Would It Mean To Experience

There’s benefits to separating belief and experience of course in analysis of course. But when thinking about disinformation I wouldn’t start with belief. I’d start with thinking about experience. 

Not “what does it mean to believe crime is skyrocketing”. But “what would be the effects of skyrocketing crime on a population?” Not “what would it change if people believed migrants were threatening people in the street”, but instead “how would politics change if migrants were threatening people in the street?” Not “what would it change if people believed Monsanto was  poisoning our cereal?” but instead “what would be the impact on your trust of corporations if you were personally poisoned by Monsanto?”

It seems a small change, but it will help you better understand how much of the most effective disinformation works, not by providing us with information, but by hacking the simulation that we must necessarily inhabit, and mucking with our experience, and thereby changing the realities that we are willing to accept.

Take for example this:

Chapian looked at the photo and nothing about it surprised her. Of course Trump had invited Clinton and Obama to the White House in a generous act of patriotism. Of course the Democrats — or “Demonrats,” as Chapian sometimes called them —had acted badly and disrespected America. It was the exact same narrative she saw playing out on her screen hundreds of times each day, and this time she decided to click ‘like’ and leave a comment.

“Well, they never did have any class,” she wrote.

 from ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America (WaPo)

It’s a guess of course, but I’m going to guess that Chapian knows at least some Democrats, but that given her level of interaction with Facebook and her lack of interaction with others it is more likely that what she reads on the web alters her experience of those people more than her relationship with those people informs her experience of the web. The same would be true of immigrants, communities of color, and so on.

As she reads, she is not simply learning new information — she is repeatedly having enraging experiences with Democrats, Jews, migrants, Hollywood celebrities and others, and each bad experience does not ground to some mediated but ultimately singular reality. Instead, it grounds to a rich texture of other digital events which have formed her set of impressions. It’s believable the Democrats flipped off Trump because — well, all of your life experience supports it. I mean, for starters, Jay-Z rapped “middle finger to the lord” at a Clinton rally:

Michelle herself said “White folks are what’s wrong with America”

obama white folks

And Obama was caught on a mic saying that 

“These crackers got no idea what it’s like to feel the struggle. Speakin’ of, how you gonna keep all your n*ggas in line while whitey Trump rules the roost?”

– Last Line of Defense, 18 January 2017

This is all false, of course, but Chapian experiences it at the level the average American experiences child separation policy at the border, the Access Hollywood tape, or far-right violence.  The information is false, but each experience is real. And because of the phenomenon of hyperreality, she is more likely to trust her digital experience than her non-digital experience. She simply has accumulated far more influential experiences online, and to the extent that her online experience differs from other mediated realities, it’s the non-digital that is seen as not fitting:

For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once, on Facebook, and if she believed the mainstream media was becoming insufficient or biased, it was her responsibility to seek out alternatives.

 from ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America (WaPo)

So What?

The story above is for a trivial thing, of course — the rudeness of Democrats. But it’s the same process for pulling people into conspiracy theories about immigrants or Jews or the Deep State. It’s the same process by which many Democrats came to believe that Clinton had hacked the results of voting machines in the primary to hand her wins in Arizona, or that the White Helmets are really CIA agents.

See, even there I slipped — I let language minimize and constrain. “[T]he same process by which many Democrats came to believe that Clinton had hacked…” No. It’s the same process by which many Democrats came to experience the primaries as hacked by Clinton. See the difference?

Maybe this all seems like a trivial distinction to you. Maybe you already know this. I’m deep enough into this field that it is hard for me to tell what is common knowledge out there and what is not. Or maybe you think this conception is far too out there — though if that’s the case, I beg you to read the Washington Post article after this and reconsider. 

But whatever your take, I encourage you to think of disinformation in this way, at least for a bit  — not as the spread of false information, but as the hacking of the simulated reality which we all must necessarily inhabit. As something that does not just change knowledge, but which produces new life experiences as real as the the Iraq War, your neighbor’s fight with cancer, or your child’s illness. To see it in this way is perhaps more terrifying, but ultimately necessary as we attempt to address the problem.

Some Preliminary Results On Cynicism and Online Information Literacy

(Note: Updated 2/6/2019 with references to work done since).

We (AASCU’s Digital Polarization Initiative) have a large information literacy pilot going on at a dozen institutions right now using our materials. The point is to gain insight into how to improve our instruction, but also to make sure it is working in the way we think it is. Part of that involves formal assessment which I am working on with Tracy Tachiera, my co-PI.

A few weeks ago we finished the Washington State classes in the pilot, in what we’re calling our high-fidelity implementation. For those unfamiliar with educational pilots I should note that that doesn’t mean the other implementations were worse or lower-value. It just means that since the materials were delivered by someone intimately familiar with how to deliver them (me) we have a high confidence that the intervention we are testing is what we think we are testing. 

In any case, we have some of our first pre/post data in, on a decent implementation.

One important caveat to start: I am reporting here *only* on the four classes I taught directly. We have well over a thousand students in the multi-institutional pilot with something like 1,300 assessments already logged; it’s a big knotty, messy assessment problem that will take some time and money to finish. But what we’re seeing in the interim is important enough that reporting on the smaller group more immediately seemed warranted.

(Update 2/6/2019: As of February 2019 we have also compiled data from the other pilot locations and dug into our free text answers from students for some insight into why they got some of these right and why they got them wrong. We’ll post on this soon. Overall, the broader results support what we see here. The student free text responses were too spotty in terms of length and descriptiveness to reliably quantify changes in strategy, but have provided unique insights into where students went right and wrong which we are applying to curriculum and future assessment design).

Rating Trustworthiness

So here’s the assessment directions the students got. They are pretty bland:

You will have 20 minutes total to answer the following four questions. You are allowed to use any online or offline method you would normally use outside of class to evaluate evidence, with the exception of asking other students directly for help.

You are allowed to go back and forth between pages, and can revisit these instructions at any time.

The students then took an A or B version of the test before the 4 hour intervention and the opposite test afterwards. The instruction was delivered in the classes over three weeks, with a three week gap after it before the post-assessment in order to capture skills decay. (Due to a scheduling conflict, one of the four classes received only 2 hours and 40 minutes of instruction, they are not included in the post-test data here, but their results were generally somewhere between the pre- and post-test results of the other classes).

Key to the assessment was we had a mixture of what we called “dubious” prompts, where a competent student should choose a very low or low level of trust (depending on the prompt), and  trustworthy prompts, where competent students would rate it moderate or higher.

So, for example, this is a dubious prompt: a conspiracy story that has been debunked by just about everyone:

Our target for this is that the students rate trust in it “Very Low” due to information you can find quite easily on it (using our “check other coverage” move)

And here is a paired trustworthy prompt in the news story category (our other prompts are in photographic evidence, policy information, and medical information):

In the above case, of course, the story is true, having been reported by multiple local and national outlets, and supported by multiple quotes from school officials. We set the target on this as meriting high or very high trust. The story as presented happened, and apart from minor quibbling about the portrayal, a fact’s a fact.

As you can see, this is all rough, which is why we are ultimately more interested in the free text replies. People might mean different things by “high” or “very high”. Arguments could be made that a prompt we considered very low should be rated “low”. Students might get the answer right for wrong reasons. Scoring the free text will show us if the students truly increased in skill and helpful dispositions. (Update 2/6/2019: while we were not able to reliably quantify the free text responses, we were able to verify that with a few exceptions incorrect student ratings were based on lack of knowledge or skill, not philosophical disagreement).

But even with this very rough data we’re seeing some important patterns.

Finding One: Initial Trust of Everything Is Low

First, students rate dubious prompts low before the intervention:

Great, right?

Yeah, except not so much. Here are the trust ratings on the trustworthy prompts right next to them in blue:

On average, students in our four WSU classes rated everything, dubious and trustworthy alike, as worthy of low to moderate trust.

This actually doesn’t surprise me, as it’s what I’ve seen in class activities over the past couple of years, a phenomenon I call “trust compression“. We’re looking to make sure that this phenomenon is not a result of subject headings around the prompts or student expectations around material but we expect it to hold.

Finding Two: After Instruction the Students Differentiate by Becoming Less Cynical

I was going to do a big dramatic run-up here, but let’s skip it. After the pre-test we did (in three of the classes) four hours of “four moves” style instruction. And here’s what trust ratings look like on the assessment after that 4 hours of instruction (these are raw results, so caveat emptor, etc):

That’s the same y-axis there. You can see what is happening — the students are “decompressing” trust — rating trustworthy items more trustworthy and (with the exception of the baking soda prompt) dubious prompts more untrustworthy. The graph is a bit hard to read without understanding what an appropriate response is on each — on gun poll trust, for example, 2 is an acceptable answer  — it’s a survey done by a trustworthy firm and in line with many other findings, but is sponsored by Brookings and pushed by the Center for American Progress, neither of which can be seen as neutral entities. The Chemo prompt is deserving of at least a three, and the rocks prompt should be between three and four. But the pattern seems clear –most of the gap opening up is from the students trusting trustworthy prompts *more*.

How the students do this is not rocket science of course. They become more trusting because rather than relying on the surface features and innate plausibility of the prompts they check what others say –Snopes, Wikipedia, Google News. If they find overwhelming consensus there or reams of linked evidence on the reliability of the source, they make the call.

(Potential) Finding Three: Student answers may be less tribal after intervention

(Update 2/6/2019: While we see a lot of promising trends here, we were not able to reliably quantify these effects, due to a large percentage of vague or very short student answers. We are looking at a revised assessment design that can adequately test this hypothesis by pushing students to give more detailed free text answers).

Emphasis on may, but this looks promising. We have not gone deep into to the free answers, but an initial scan of them seems to indicate that students are less tribal in their answers. To be fair, tribalism doesn’t figure much into either pre- or post- responses. Fatalism about the ideological filters of older adults may be warranted, but at least on the issues we tested with our first years (including coal industry benefits, nuclear power risks, alternative medicine, gun control, and child sex-trafficking conspiracy) there was far less tribalism in evidence than current discussion would have you think.

Where there was tribalism it tended to disappear in the post-test, for an obvious reason. The students in the pre-test were reacting to the page in front of them, trying to recognize misinformation. In doing so, they fell back on their assumptions of what was likely true and what was not, usually informed by tribal understandings. If you stare at a picture mutated flowers and ask whether it seems plausible then your answer is more likely to touch on whether you believe nuclear power is safe or not. This is the peril of teaching students to try and “recognize” fake news — doing so places undue weight on preconceptions.

(Update 2/8/2019: In looking at the broader pilot we did find some classes that evidenced a bit more tribalism in the post-test. It’s not a lot of classes, but enough to merit further investigation as to whether these might be demographic differences, differences in the delivery of the curriculum, or just pure chance.)

If, on the other hand, you look not to your own assumptions but to the verification and investigative work of others for an answer, you’re far less likely to fall back on your belief system as a guide. You move from “This is likely because I believe stuff like this happens” to “There might be an issue here, but in this case this is false.”

(Much) more to come

We have a lot of work to do on with our data. We need to get the WSU free responses to the prompts scored, and as other institutions in our twelve institution pilot finish their interventions we need to get the free text scored there as well. If the variance and difficulty of the tests match, we’d like to get it all paired up into a true pre/post, and maybe even compare motion of high-performers to low performers. (Update 2/8/2019: As mentioned above,
The student free text responses were too spotty in terms of length and descriptiveness to reliably quantify changes in strategy, but have provided unique insights into where students went right and wrong which we are applying to curriculum and future assessment design )

But as I look at the data I can’t help but think a lot of what-if fatalism about tribalism and cynicism is misplaced. I’ve talked repeatedly as fact-checking as “tools for trust”, a guard against the cynicism that cognitive overload often produces. I think that’s what we’re seeing here. It makes students more capable of trust.

I’m also just not seeing the knotty education problem people keep talking about. True, much of what we have done in the past — CRAAP, RADCAB, critical-thinking-as-pixie-dust and the like — has not prepared students for web misinformation. But a history of bad curricular design doesn’t mean that education is pointless. It often just means you need better curriculum. 

I’ll keep you all updated as we hit this with a bit more data and mathematical rigor.

How to Teach Older People Online Infolit

People often ask me what we can do about older people and online information literacy. Old people are not necessarily more confused than young people, but for various reasons they are positioned to do much more harm when they get things wrong. They also tend to be embedded in more ideological tribes whereas as young people form tribes around other interests.

My answer is this: teach the young people how to fact-check and then have them teach their parents. Young folks are already embarrassed about their parents’ cluelessness on the web, and my experience with young folks (in a middle class American context at least) is they have no trouble speaking up when your actions as a parent are embarrassing. So give young people the skills, and show them how to teach others.

A short example: I’m not a personal fan of the post-consumer recycling approach we’ve adopted to packaging in the U.S. But in the 1980s and 1990s we decided to teach a nation to recycle their trash. Did we go out and have massive education initiatives for adults on the recycling process and the importance of it? Nope. We educated the kids so that every parent who threw a yogurt cup into the wrong container had to endure the “why do you hate baby seals” stare of their fifth grader.  And some folks got resentful, but for most it was easier just to learn how to do it.

There are many other examples. My Dad quit smoking partially because his recently educated grade schoolers guilted him into it. Children of the 1970s were often the ones teaching their parents to not throw trash out the car window. College students of the 1990s were often the ones showing their parents how to work the new computer, or get on the web.

People — of all ages — are already there in terms of desiring to curb misinformation’s spread, but they need to be able to teach the skills to their parents in a systemic way. I talked to a person in D.C. a month ago whose mother always shares those fake “missing kid” memes on Facebook. And she always would comment “Mom, it’s fake” (or old or whatever). But it never occurred to her that she could show her Mom how to check it herself. When we get these checks down to easily demonstrable 10 second checks, that changes.

Teach the children and give them the skills and tools to teach their parents, stopping them from sliding into conspiracy subcultures and alternate realities. Teach the interns to teach their Senators and policy makers how to check this stuff. The college students to navigate health information for their aunt or uncle. Graduate wave after wave of people who know how to navigate the web and are committed to helping other to do better with it too.  That’s how you get this done.


It’s Not About the “Heat” of the Rhetoric, It’s About Its Toxicity

Lots of media people today talking about whether “heated” rhetoric resulted in what we have seen in the past few weeks. But this is the wrong frame.

The “heated rhetoric” approach to thinking about public discourse imagines political violence as a barroom brawl. Someone spills a drink. Someone calls that person an asshole. That person makes a comment about that person’s girlfriend, which results in a push, which leads to a shove, which leads to a punch and pretty soon people are fighting.

These dynamics do occur, both in personal situations and larger political ones. Gang warfare and neighbor disputes have these dynamics. These dynamics also exist within deliberative bodies. I’ve seen such things happen in local political settings too.

But that’s not what the last week has been about.

The problem with the rhetoric we are seeing is not how angry it is or how insulting. It’s not even the viciousness of the attacks.

Our problem is not heated rhetoric, but toxic rhetoric.

Toxic Rhetoric Doesn’t Just Inflame, It Warps Reality

Toxic rhetoric is used not just to attack, but to warp people’s reality. It often works as a system, with bottom up web-based networks providing dangerous meta-narratives that map on to mainstream news stories and that are reinforced by elite dog-whistling. When the different parts of the system are assembled the effect is different than any one part acting individually.

The prime example of this is the “caravan” meta-narrative that seems to have been the partial motivation of the apparent pipe-bomber and a central motivation of the synagogue shooter.

Consider the last social media message of the shooter.


Bowers states that HIAS, a Jewish charity that helps refugees, is “bringing in invaders”, and he can’t stand by and let his people “get slaughtered.” He knows this close to the election a mass shooting will not look good, but he has no choice, time is of the essence.

This is not the voice of someone that has gotten so mad or angry they are going to hurt somebody. It’s not about the heat, or even the hate. There is a belief here that if something is not done now it will literally lead to the slaughter of the white people. That is the motivation. Hate plays a part, but it is the delusion that triggers the action.

Why does he believe that the white race is literally weeks or days from annihilation from foreign invaders? And what does it have to do with the Jewish community?

His posts provide an answer. There is some speculation required here but not much. Bowers seems to have believed that the migrant “caravan” had been organized by George Soros as part of a vast Jewish conspiracy to subjugate white people. This theory first emerged in March, attached to a different caravan, and circulated in Facebook groups and other platforms. When the more recent caravan appeared it was attached to that caravan.

For people deep in “anti-globalist” social media distortion field, there were added overtones. A popular book among white nationalists, the alt-right, and a number of mainstream conservatives is the 1975 novel Camp of the Saints which tells the story of an “armada” of 800,000 impoverished Indians that winds its way slowly to the shores of France seeking asylum. Politicians dither about what should be done as it moves towards France’s shores, not knowing that the landing of the refugee ships is a signal for migrants everywhere to rise up and begin the white genocide.


This is not “heated rhetoric”. This is toxic rhetoric. It doesn’t just inflame the passions —  it rots the mind and poisons the intellect.

I want to be very careful about how I say this — but if you believed this was true, if you really believed your entire race was about to be extinguished by an invading migrant army controlled by all-powerful Jewish interests, then violence not an insane act, or even an act of anger. It would, in a demented way, be rational. And that — not angry words — is what makes our discourse so dangerous.

These Beliefs Are Insane, But the Perpetrators Are Probably Not and That Should Scare You

There is a rush whenever this happens to say that the people committing these acts were insane. This is never based on any real analysis, but usually based on the fact that they committed unspeakable violence and the fact they believed delusional things.

The “they committed violence” approach is easy to dismiss as it is tautological:

  • Q: “Why did they commit these unspeakable acts?”
  • A: “They were insane.”
  • Q: “How do we know they are insane?”
  • A: “They committed unspeakable acts.”

The second thing the media does to paint these folks as insane is show their beliefs. So Bowers apparently believed that George Soros was organizing the “caravan”, funding it and assisting it. Obviously delusional, right?

Except these views are quite common. Here’s a VP of Campbell’s Soup (now a former VP). Open Society is a charity that Soros runs:


Johnston was a former Secretary of the US Senate under Bob Dole. And these beliefs are quite common, propagated through a massive amplification and dissemination network on social media. Here, for example, is a “Soros” mention network that researcher Jonathan Albright pulled off of Instagram just before the synagogue attack.


The dense connections you see up there in red are a sign of a coordinated effort to get Soros disinformation in front of people. Exposure to these narratives provides the framework through which those exposed will view mainstream coverage and the statements of their chosen elites.

As a result, millions of people are consuming these narratives, along with false flag and crisis actor memes. And it is not hysteria to see those who read and spread these memes at different points along a radicalization spectrum. The former VP of Campbell’s Soup was not striking a pose. He had bought into the idea that not only was George Soros funding and coordinating an invasion, but that there was a conspiracy by the media to hide it, so much so that the camera operators and reporters were under orders from the networks to hide the “troop carriers and rail cars” that were there to take them north.

Going the next step, and believing this massive conspiracy of a thousand moving parts is a Jewish conspiracy wouldn’t even be the hardest radicalization step here. To a person who has been consuming toxic garbage for years and has bought into plainly impossible vast conspiracies this is the smallest, not the largest step.

This Was Predictable

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about the wrongheaded idea that when people consumed disinformation it was mainly a case of confirmation bias, with people becoming more confident (and perhaps more emotional) about ideas they already held. The better way to look at it I said was as a process of radicalization into conspiracy-driven networks and other alternate realities. Seeing it this way was crucial, I claimed, because bit by bit social media was pulling us toward a disaster much bigger than the 2016 election, where the net-enabled mainstreaming of conspiracy theory and the mythology of white supremacy would mix with disastrous results:

People exposed themselves to Facebook multiple times a day, every single day, seeing headlines making all sorts of crazy claims, and filed them in their famil-o-meter for future reference. We’ve never seen something on this scale. Not even close.

If Facebook was a tool for confirmation bias, that would kind of suck. It would. But that is not the claim. The claim is that Facebook is quite literally training us to be conspiracy theorists. And given the history of what happens when conspiracy theory and white supremacy mix, that should scare the hell out of you.

Many people provided welcome feedback to it, some supportive, some critical. Was this a moral panic perhaps? Was it really historically unique? Was the 2016 election just a weird blip? Did people’s minds really change or did they post these things without believing them? Silly Mike, you need to take these things seriously but not literally.

Years later the prediction has proven true, time and time again, with horrific regularity here and abroad. Yet we’re still talking about confirmation bias and heated conversations and civility as the core issues. We’re still stuck in tiny pilot programs around web-based literacy to address this stuff on stunningly small scales.

Meanwhile, post by post, click by click, people of all ages are being slowly groomed into conspiracy cultures that turn fear into violence and authoritarian rule. Once people’s reality is warped in this way, bringing them back is difficult, and yet we are moving at a snail’s pace on educational and technological fronts. The media is still talking about the problem as if the core was people being impolite. The world slowly slides toward a dark future, across the globe. We have educational solutions (just read the rest of this blog) but they remain un-deployed or under-deployed.

The events of the past week were completely predictable, in the most obvious way: they were predicted. Multiple times. They have happened before, in multiple countries, multiple ways, multiple incidents. This all should matter. I’m am crushed and broken by the events of the past week. But much of my anger and frustration is at the too-small educational solutions we continue to roll out as the entire edifice slowly sinks.





The Persistent Myth of Insurmountable Tribalism Will Kill Us All

New Knight Foundation-supported study out about college students which very much confirms what we see in classrooms. Students:

  • feel overwhelmed by the “firehose of news”
  • feel unequipped to sort through that news
  • want to read and share truthful accounts
  • believe in journalistic principles of accuracy and verification
  • but fall back on cynicism as a strategy, believing far more news to be fake or spun than really is

All this is exactly what we see in classrooms. Every class might have one or two hardcore partisans, but the vast majority of students feel OVERWHELMED. They want to do the right thing, but it seems impossibly time-intensive and complex.

What we find in this environment is that some students initially talk like hardcore partisans when looking at prompts, before they have the skills to navigate the overload. But that’s because the alternative to reacting tribally is an investigation they imagine is going to take them an afternoon. Once they have the skills, that tendency slips away. Here’s the sort of answers we’re getting after one week of skills training when a student looks at a story of declining arctic ice from the National Snow & Ice Data Center (an excellent source, BTW):

“This site appears trustworthy. I searched Google news and found it is cited by multiple credible sources including bigger weather news sites. I also used the “Just add Wikipedia” trick as a way to investigate funding and found that it is partially funded by the US through NASA, which shows there are probably experts there.”

“It’s good, they’ve been around forever and are affiliated with other research facilities like University of Colorado.”

(amalgamation of several student responses to protect student privacy).

We do enough of these in class that we can see they get to this point in less than 60 seconds for many tasks. If the habits hold, when someone tries to pull them slowly into post-truth land, they’ll have a natural resistance. Maybe enough to avoid the first steps down that slippery slope.

You know what I don’t see in my classes — in a Republican district, where a nontrivial number of students don’t believe in climate change? Any reaction of the sort that you “can’t trust the site because declining sea ice and climate change is a myth.” Not one.

It’s not just a Republican thing. We find the same thing with prompts for liberal hot-button issues on GMOs. Students — many of whom are very committed to “natural” products and lifestyles — make accurate assessments of the lack of credibility of sites supporting their opinions. They believe this stuff, maybe, but admit the given site is not a good source.

Now you might think that all the students (all of them!) are somehow secretly hiding their tribalism and saying what they know they need to say to get approval — even though none of our assignments are graded on anything but participation. If you haven’t taught a class before, maybe that sounds plausible to you — that all the students have simultaneously decided to hide their secret opinions and somehow mimic expert competence instead while not believing in it.

If you have taught a class before I know you are doubled over laughing at that idea. Good teachers know when students are faking it, or going through motions with secret resentment. That’s not what we see in our classes. We see excitement with the new skills, and above all RELIEF. You can see the great weight being lifted as the students learn 60-second fact-checks. I came in once to one section I taught and forgot to go over the homework, and the students were crushed. When I realized I had skipped it and went back to it, they lit up. They wanted to show off their new skills.

Not just the Republicans. Not just the Democrats. The students, all of them.

And yet everywhere I present to ADULTS, there are people that tell me these methods won’t work, because tribalism-yadda-yadda-yadda. They’ve usually never taught this stuff, certainly not this way. But they are convinced of tribalism as a fundamental truth, an intractable problem. They’ve taken it on faith that — unlike almost anything else in human life — tribalism is not one of many factors governing human behavior, but a sort of absolute veto that obliterates anything you throw against it, a dispositional antimatter.

Yep. Academics and bureaucrats can be fiercely tribalistic about the insurmountably of tribalism.

To be honest, believing our students just don’t want to know the truth is the professional corollary to the cynicism we see students come in with about news media. Cynicism may not provide comfort, but it provides absolution. In this world, at this particular moment, that may feel like the best possible deal you’re going to be able to cut. I get it.

But it’s also a waste of the frustrated idealism of our students. I don’t know where our students will be in ten years or what they will believe. I know that views do harden, even over the course of college. But they come to us, right now, wanting to do better at this, feeling guilty that they’re not, overwhelmed by the effort to close that gap. The fact that we don’t take advantage of that desire, that class by class we are letting this urge of students to do better wither on the vine so that they can later be groomed and radicalized by God knows who — that is something we will all come to regret, no matter which tribe we belong to. A massive, massive waste of human desire and potential in the face of looming catastrophe.

The report tells us the students would like to do better. The students in our classes learn to do better, and enjoy doing better. I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.


Added 10/17: Someone below asked whether I could link to these skills we teach. Sure. The two best starting points are this set of four three-minute videos from Civix, and the textbook. Teachers can find other teaching resources — including importable online activities — here.