The Toxins We Carry

Phillips, Whitney
Columbia Journalism Review

“We need to know why this is happening.”
“The best defense against lies is the truth.”
“Light disinfects.” Statements such as these frequently emerge in the wake of the falsehoods, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and racist attacks that roar across social media. We reach for facts as our antidote to misinformation, false and misleading stories that are inadvertently spread; or disinformation, false and misleading stories that are deliberately spread; or malinformation, true stories that are spread in order to slander and harm. But the problem plaguing digital media is larger than any of these individually; it’s that the categories overlap, obscuring who shares false information knowingly and who shares it thinking it’s true. With so much whizzing by so quickly, good and bad actors—and good and bad information—become hopelessly jumbled. Claire Wardle, cofounder of the nonprofit research group First Draft, describes the mess as “information pollution.” Democracy cannot function when what’s true can’t be distinguished from what’s trash, Wardle argues. Journalists know this better than anyone. And so they scramble to help their readers understand the facts of a story, as often and as loudly as they can.