This post is part of “Cybersecurity and Election Interference,” a Brookings series that explores digital threats to American democracy, cybersecurity risks in elections, and ways to mitigate possible problems.
The public discussion of disinformation often focuses on targeted candidates, without recognizing that disinformation actually targets voters. In the case of elections, actors both foreign and domestic are trying to influence whether or not you as an individual vote, and for whom to cast your ballot. The effort goes farther than elections: it is about the information on whether to vaccinate children or boycott the NFL. What started with foreign adversaries now includes domestic groups, all fighting for control over what you believe to be true.
Since the discovery of social media manipulation by nefarious actors in the 2016 campaign, governments and social media platforms have made few public attempts to disrupt the systems that enable the spread of disinformation. While preserving democratic and economic institutions in the digital era will require more action from governments and platforms, if we, the public, can acknowledge ourselves at the targets, we can make ourselves less susceptible. Here are four simple ways to do your part in fighting back:
1. Know your algorithm
Get to know your own social media feed and algorithm, because disinformation targets us based on our online behavior and our biases. Platforms cater information to you based on what you stop to read, engage with, and send to friends. This information is then accessible to advertisers and can be manipulated by those who know how to do so, in order to target you based on your past behavior. The result is we are only seeing information that an algorithm thinks we want to consume, which could be biased and distorted.
2. Retrain your newsfeed
Once you have gotten to know your algorithm, you can change it to start seeing other points of view. Repeatedly seek out reputable sources of information that typically cater to viewpoints different than your own, and begin to see that information occur in your newsfeed organically.
3. Scrutinize your news sources
Start consuming information from social media critically. Social media is more than a news digest—it is social, and it is media. We often scroll through passively, absorbing a combination of personal updates from friends and family—and if you are among the two-thirds of Americans who report consuming news on social media—you are passively scrolling through news stories as well. A more critical eye to the information in your feed and being able to look for key indicators of whether or not news is timely and accurate, such as the source and the publication date, is incredibly important. For example, is a story in your feed about your home state senator making a statement on Iran a story published during past negotiations, or is it from the recent downing of a US drone? Is it published by a blogger you have never heard of or a well-known publication with editorial review? Attention to detail matters.
4. Consider not sharing
Finally, think before you share. If you think that a “news” article seems too sensational or extreme to be true, it probably is. By not sharing, you are stopping the flow of disinformation and falsehoods from getting across to your friends and network. While the general public cannot be relied upon to solve this problem alone, it is imperative that we start doing our part to stop this phenomenon. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us from disinformation, and to start saving ourselves.