Una Mullally: How to combat misinformation this Christmas

Christmas dinner is as good a place as any to promote literacy on internet algorithms

Remember that algorithms are constantly steering you online. They are constantly laying out tracks in various directions in front of you, the train, the “user”.

Remember that algorithms are constantly steering you online. They are constantly laying out tracks in various directions in front of you, the train, the “user”.

 

The maxim that the socially polite should never talk about religion, politics or money is of course wrong. The more we talk about these things, the more common ground we can find. The more we expunge our first-draft points of view, the more we can develop sophisticated ones with depth and nuance. The more we listen, the more we learn. 

Christmas can create a heightened atmosphere for conversations, as disparate family members and neighbours with diverse points of view come together. Some things are of course tricky to discuss, but this Christmas, try choosing a different route into conversations. Instead of debating an issue, debate why you’re debating the issue.

Is the topic you’re raising the consequence of laziness in front of YouTube, letting the algorithm and suggested videos do your work for you? Has your mind been changed by a meme in your Facebook feed? Did you fall down a rabbit hole following links to sensationalist news stories an acquaintance posted in a WhatsApp group? 

Swap Facebook feeds for a moment by showing a family member what you’re seeing versus what others are seeing

A helpful exercise with family is swapping Facebook feeds for a moment, by showing a family member what you’re seeing versus what others are seeing. We can often be fooled into thinking that our social media feeds are everyone’s, but of course, they are tailored to us based on our own online behaviour; who we follow, what we click on, and what we share with others. So what are your parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins seeing on their Facebook feeds? What is their lens on the world? Chat about what everyone is seeing on their own social media, and what you think this says about what kind of information is being filtered or pointed in your direction. 

WhatsApp and trust

If family members are sharing a link, screenshot, meme or story that seems a bit off, or raising a topic deriving from a piece of online content, encourage people to examine its source. Who is sharing this information with them on Facebook or in a WhatsApp group? Do they know them? Do they trust them? Is the source an expert on what they’re talking about? Have you heard of the website you’ve just ended up on? Who runs it? How did you end up there?

Then there’s the “devil’s advocate” position, which is obviously both an online and offline condition, people who say things like “for argument’s sake”. What is the intention of this position? Is someone trying to get a rise out of you online or off, or do they benefit somehow (attention, notoriety, enjoying conflict) from creating a heightened atmosphere on social media or around the dinner table by sharing or broadcasting sensationalist misinformation?

Remember that algorithms are constantly steering you online. They are constantly laying out tracks in various directions in front of you, the train, the “user”. They nudge and push and hide and steer. Be aware that the information you and others are consuming is not serendipitous or coincidental or happenstance, but that it is embedded in the design of social media platforms that aim to know more about you than you yourself do, and that attempts to predict your behaviour may unduly influence it. 

The economy of social media is one of attention, distraction and addiction. Don’t feed it

Christmas is meant to provide downtime, and it’s a great time to divest oneself of unnecessary social media platforms and groups. Turn off notifications on your phone. The economy of social media is one of attention, distraction and addiction. Don’t feed it. 

Twitter has notification filters that allow you to control who you interact with on the platform. You can use the quality filter that claims to remove “lower-quality” tweets from your notifications, and in advanced filter settings you can also disable notifications from accounts you don’t follow or don’t follow you.

False information

To avoid scrolling on Instagram, for example, I delete the app from my phone’s home screen, and download it when I want to post a photograph, and then delete it again. That sounds like an inconvenience, but it wastes far less time than finding myself absentmindedly tapping for 10 minutes through people’s stories I never even intended to look at when I opened the app.

Remove yourself from as many WhatsApp groups as possible. We sometimes find ourselves added to WhatsApp groups – neighbourhood, sport, work, parenting – that we didn’t ask to be a member of. Many WhatsApp groups are completely benign, but some push false information into our personal digital spaces. Large WhatsApp groups operate along a heightened version of social currency, often leading to the loudest voices controlling the tone of a group and, because of the group aspect of the design and dynamic, it can be hard to call someone out or simply leave. If people are posting misinformation or offensive material, call it out, and if nothing changes, leave the group. If you know the person in real life, call them to discuss what’s wrong. If you don’t, then question why you are in a WhatsApp group with strangers in the first place.

Media and social media literacy is often framed as something to be taught in schools, and it should be. But it’s also an education that older social media users who may be less fluent in the language of internet discourse need. The work of countering misinformation and disinformation begins in our own homes, offices and communities. It begins at the dinner table. Yes, even Christmas dinner.

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