Opinion: The truth is under fire — and it concerns us all | Opinion | DW | 25.12.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: The truth is under fire — and it concerns us all

Honesty is a valuable commodity, but lies are in the ascendant right now, particularly on social media. This is highly dangerous, says Christina Bergmann — and we should all do whatever we can to counter it.

The US president spreads debunked conspiracy theories, the British prime minister has deceived the Queen, and an international army of trolls has only one purpose in life: spreading disinformation on social networks. The truth is in a parlous state as 2019 draws to a close.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, would be rubbing his hands with glee. In his day, he had to target the media, force them to toe the political line, and have journalists arrested, to gain sovereignty over the distribution of information. By contrast, today's populists have it easy. They just tweet and post half-truths and untruths round the clock. Then their followers share this dangerous nonsense 10,000 times over — and if even a fraction of it gets stuck in people's minds, the demagogues have succeeded in dividing the nation a little further, and binding their followers a little more closely to themselves. They've also made the next election victory that little bit more likely.

"If you believe what it says here, you should have your head examined"

DW's Christina Bergmann

DW's Christina Bergmann

Take a peek outside your own social media bubble on platforms like Facebook, and you'll be amazed at what's out there. "[US Democrat] Nancy Pelosi has siphoned off 2.4 billion dollars from the social security coffers to finance the impeachment proceedings [against President Trump]" screams the headline. One click is all it takes for me to inform the world that this makes me really angry. Another click, and I've shared the shocking headline. How can this woman take money from the poor and pensioners!

Again, just one click is enough to open the article behind the post. And if you're even slightly skeptical and actually take a closer look, you'll soon realize that it not only can't be true — it ISN'T true. The article is filed under the heading "Satire to get you excited." And a look at the website's masthead reveals: "Everything on this website is invented. ... If you believe what it says here, you should have your head examined."

But it's no use. The post is shared nonetheless, without any oversight whatsoever, and prompts furious comments — which, thanks to Facebook's algorithm, means that even more people get to see it in their "news" feed. It's enough to make you despair. How can anyone believe such nonsense?

Because we haven't yet learned to deal with the volume of information we're being flooded with via social networks. Because nobody there tells us what's important and what's not, what's right and what's wrong. Everything has equal weight. Everything appears in my feed, the good and the bad, the useful and the dangerous. And finally: Everyone on Facebook is my "friend." And I trust my friends.

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Tools to Counter Fake News

Media competence and fact-checking

It is time to denounce and counteract this blind trust — with a broad coalition for truth, against disinformation and fake news, and for greater media competence. There are indications that this is beginning: Twitter has taken a first step of banning political advertising, but Facebook and Google are still playing hard to get. They too, will have to fulfill their responsibility, though, if they don't want to destabilize our society.

DW is also participating in an international project that aims to check facts on the Internet and social media, and to teach media competence. These are areas that need not only media companies but also educational institutions to get involved. Understanding Facebook algorithms, manipulated images, and the correct way to deal with social media needs to be taught in schools and universities, but further training should also be offered in the workplace.

Finally, each and every one of us can do something. Let's not share anything we haven't checked, at least briefly, to see whether it's actually true. That way our friends can trust us. Let's put up with the outrageous stories in our feeds and maintain contact with people at the opposite political extreme. Let's give them likes for their harmless jokes — while also pointing it out to them, at least from time to time, when they're getting worked up about another invented story. And above all: Let's not just give up in despair.

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