You probably remember “Stop, Drop, and Roll” — shorthand instructions for what to do if you catch fire. For years, I have recommended something similar to Internet users when they encounter anything suspicious — Stop chatting, Drop the conversation, and Roll your chair away from the keyboard. I usually intend this as a tool to stop Nigerian 419 emails or Sweetheart scams. But here, I mean it as an emergency plan for election day.
You and the people you love are going to see a deluge of misinformation tomorrow — from bots, from nation-state actors, from political hacks, but most of all, from confused friends and family. There’s going to be fake videos showing digital voting machines switching votes; misleading images of discarded ballots; and endless accusations about “who started it” during street confrontations.
Don’t add to the problem. Instead, be part of the solution. Stop, drop and roll away from the keyboard.
Look, I know how fun it feels to be first. Journalists are addicted to “scoops,” to telling the world something for the first time, before anyone else. Scoops go terribly wrong, however, as all of you know. And, so can you.
The rush of dopamine you feel from forwarding on a message that confirms your worldview really is addictive. Especially if you are first in your friend group. In the old days, we just called this gossip, and it died on your neighbor’s front porch. Today, thanks to technology, digital gossip might be the scariest weapon ever invented. It’s being used to erode our faith in every single institution we care about, that makes life worth living. Our newspapers, our government, scientists, churches….even our friendships. Think about all the fractured relationships you have with friends now, because of hate-filled gossip and the exponential power of digital sharing.
Don’t be weaponized. Just….wait. Listen before you speak. Don’t believe the first thing you read about an incident, or the second, or the third — because your electronic life has been hacked to make the first 1,000 items you read all confirm your worldview. Instead, evaluate who’s making money off making you mad, and don’t fall for it. Find people who *don’t* agree with you and see what they say. Leave room for surprise, for error. Open your heart to the idea that Twitter is not real life, and we might actually learn something tomorrow.
At a bare minimum, think about those who are thrilled that Americans can’t stand each other right now, and don’t help them. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite books. In it, a young “apprentice” devil named Wormwood is taught by his uncle, Screwtape, how to succeed at the art of turning souls dark. The tricks turn out to be trivial, small ways to turn people against each other. It’s a remarkable depiction of an enemy strategy. You don’t have to believe in God to see that those who want to see America diminished are laughing in delight at the way Americans treat Americans today.
I have written much about technology’s role in our social erosion, and in misinformation. I have many more stories coming down the pike, and I’m preparing a reading list of sorts on the subject. But on election eve, I thought I’d share some of this research.
I’ve already done a podcast about Infinite vs Finite games, and how players who have no desire to win — who just want to keep an argument going infinitely — have a huge advantage on the Internet, where the cost of arguing is almost nothing.
I think falling for misinformation is quite similar to falling for an Internet scam. Here’s my column, Seven reasons people fall for scams, which I’ve written in many forms through the years. The tl;dr — most people are overconfident; the most skeptical are often the easiest to fool; we want to believe in magic; people have momentary lapses of judgment; and speed breeds mistakes.
A few other things I’ve learned recently:
- Here’s another link to that amazing video from a PBS station explaining why our brains love fake news.
- There’s Brandolini’s law, also knows as the bullshit asymmetry principle: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” In fact, there’s a whole college course on this idea (Thanks, Shane Stansbury of Duke University.)
- Researcher Julie Hotard turned me on to the Gish Gallop technique, named for Duane Gish, who used it to argue against evolution. I think of it has Brandonlini’s law squared; someone piles half-truths and lies on each other so fast that a foe can’t possibly fact-check them all.
Which brings me back to my first point: Stop, Drop and Roll. You can’t fact-check everything you’ll see tomorrow, but you’ll be amazed how often the truth rises to the top if you give it time. I’m hoping for a clean result tomorrow, so we can all move on in whatever direction Americans decide, but knowing how flawed our vote-counting tools are, we might have to wait. We might have to be patient. That’s ok. Stop reading, drop the conversation, and roll away from the keyboard. It’s your best election night plan.