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Where Does All That Online Disinformation Come From? Experts Say You Get What You Search For.

 "What is this and why does it keep showing up on my computer?!"
Tom Flanigan
"What is this and why does it keep showing up on my computer?!"

The rise of the Internet has made the knowledge of the world readily available to pretty much everyone. But those knowledge seekers also need to be aware of how they're searching for information. Here's Al Tompkins, a senior broadcast and online faculty member for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism and research organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"What exactly are you Googling? If for example you Google: 'Coronavirus facts,' you're going to get factual links to things like the CDC and the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins. But if you Google: 'Coronavirus truth,' you're going to get a very different return because it's going to assume you want to know about conspiracy theories and things that may not be factual or statistical, but instead theoretical."

Have you every noticed how, if you look online for information about a specific product - say a new washing machine - that suddenly you're seeing a tidal wave of pop-up ads for washing machines? Tompkins said that's just the way the Internet and social media platforms work.

"All of these services are trying to figure out, 'What is it that this person wants?' And they're really not in the business to figure out what is the best answer. They're not trying to give you the best answer. They're trying to give you what you asked for and pair you up with your past history."

Which is how online searches for additional information automatically narrows the sources of that information more and more. So if a person has been looking at sites that promote unproven "alternative" treatments for COVID-19, pretty soon that's all they're seeing to the exclusion of facts about therapies with greater acceptance and documented effectiveness. And Tompkins says that misinformation quickly spreads like - you guessed it - a virus.

"If you believe that something is real and true, and you pass it on, it's a signal to other people who know you and respect you and like you. They'll go, 'Well, he said it's interesting; maybe it's interesting.' Or, 'He said it's true; maybe it is true.' I think we all underestimate how many people we influence. And we have to be more responsible for what we say online just as we are in person. It's one of those great mysteries to me how we act differently when we're driving in our car than we do in person and it's just the same online."

Of course, when many people encounter opposing views from friends, relations, or even complete strangers online, the urge is to convince them of their folly, which can devolve into nasty cyberwars. Tompkins felt that's generally a waste of time.

"I find that people who never change their mind are the least secure, which is the reason they won't change their mind because that's a threat to them. But as journalists, I think that we are also somewhat to blame here in that we sometimes punish people who change their minds and we call them 'flip-floppers' and I think that's unfortunate, too. Who among us hasn't evolved our thinking over the last decades about everything from race relations, to gender equity, to all sorts of things."

But it's not only personal conviction that's driving so much of the misinformation and conflict that typlifies even casual online sojourns nowadays. Angie Drobnik Holan is an editor for Politifact. She maintains a huge component of all this is how essentially every topic imaginable - including public health policy - is caught up in politics.

"We certainly saw that during President Donald Trump's administration. And although the current administration of President Joe Biden is trying to de-politicize it, I think they're having mixed success."

That, she asserted, is also amplifying and intensifying some pre-existing attitudes.

"There was this element on the Internet even before COVID that was anti-vaccine. And so we've seen that group grow and spread messaging."

And, as Al Tompkins explained earlier, false news travels fast. All of this had led to a significant part of the U.S. population refusing to be vaccinated, wear masks or take other precautions that in previous times might be considered reasonable. But Nolan also insisted there are ways the misinformation bubble can be popped.

"There's anecdotal evidence that when people know other people who get serious cases of COVID and they're either hospitalized or sadly die, that the people who know those people, that kind of direct experience changes minds when they start seeing people they know get this."

However, there are also lots of anecdotal stories about people becoming infected themselves and, even as death looms, insist that the coronavirus is a hoax. Even so, Holan is taking an optimistic long view.

"Generations will change, circumstances will change, sometimes an outer enemy is really good at unifying a culture. I don't know what that would be, but certainly history shows that. So you just never know. Things seem really partisan and polarized right now, but nothing lasts forever."

As the saying goes, "Hope springs eternal."

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