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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Beyond the polls: Calling out the lies in an age of disinformation

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    Charlotte Scot of Old Lyme speaks during the voter forum Saturday, May 25, 2024, at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Tina West, of Lyme, speaks during the voter forum Saturday, May 25, 2024, at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Betsy Huston, of Old Lyme, speaks during the voter forum while Richard Hrinak, of Old Lyme, listens Saturday, May 25, 2024, at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Lee Howard, of The Day, leads the voter forum Saturday, May 25, 2024, at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    People attend the voter forum Saturday, May 25, 2024, at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    To Charlotte Scot, a 77-year-old voter from Old Lyme, the question of misinformation and disinformation is fairly straightforward.

    “There’s a lot of people in Washington who just lie,” she said during a May 25 voter forum sponsored by The Day at Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. “And no one calls them out.”

    Scot, who said she once spent time in Washington during the Carter Administration, now calls herself an independent who doesn’t have anyone on the ballot she feels completely comfortable voting for. She blamed some in the media for propagating untruths that allow politicians to lie without concern about the consequences.

    “They put this in our head, about fake news and alternate facts,” Scot said. “There is no such thing as an alternate fact; there is a fact, then alternate opinions. And the other opinions may not be lies. But they're not fact.”

    Tina West of Lyme agreed with Scot that there needs to be more education to help young and old alike decipher fact from lies.

    “There are things to truly be afraid of but not necessarily what every politician is telling you,” said West, a political scientist by training. “Disinformation tends to raise the emotional temperature -- more heat than light.”

    During a series of three voter forums over a two-week period that concluded Wednesday in Stonington, residents shared their concerns about what attendees determined during a previous series of gatherings are the Top 5 issues among local residents, including misinformation and disinformation, the environment, immigration, foreign policy and the future of democracy.

    The Day plans to write in-depth stories on each of the Top 5 issues monthly leading up to the November election by weaving in forum and email comments along with expert commentary to put the issues into better historical context. To submit your views on the top issues, email election2024@theday.com.

    Many of the participants voiced concerns about social media’s ability to amplify misinformation and disinformation. A majority in Old Lyme agreed that it would be a good idea to regulate social media to ensure that its information is factual and not filled with hate speech. The Old Lyme group, numbering about 10, also wanted to see more education to improve critical thinking skills, more respect for reputable sources of news, better sourcing in news stories and more accountability when media outlets and politicians provide inaccurate information.

    The Stonington group that met Wednesday, eight in number, said they thought voters should be more discerning in electing leaders, while also believing that social media outlets should be more transparent about their algorithms, lawmakers should regulate artificial intelligence, the media should provide more critical analysis of the facts they present to the public and educational institutions should do more to engage people, both old and young, in civics classes and media literacy.

    But some people didn’t think the problem with misinformation and disinformation could be resolved so easily.

    “Truth is gone, basically,” said one member of the May 20 New London forum who did not identify himself. “Everything is political.”

    He was countered by another participant who argued, “There are real things in the world and real people in the world. It's not debatable. It's not a point of view. It's real.”

    The New London forum, held in a different format from the ones in Old Lyme and Stonington, sometimes became contentious, with no time at the end to discuss solutions to the big issues discussed. In the other forums, possible solutions to the issues were discussed at the outset by participants, leading to a calmer exchange of ideas and a fair amount of agreement.

    Michael A. Spikes, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago who specializes in media literacy, said last week that a lot of people these days are suspicious of others’ ability to discern the truth without realizing their own abilities are limited as well.

    “It’s almost like human nature,” Spikes said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We overestimate our own ability to verify whether something is misinformation. ... It’s not a problem for them; it’s a problem for everyone else.”

    Spikes said misinformation and disinformation happen on both sides of the political aisle, and our tendency to accept nonfactual information as the truth is largely dependent on whether it fits into our particular partisan view of the world.

    He labeled misinformation as the passing of false information without the intent to misinform, while disinformation involves a consciousness of providing untrue information with the specific intent to spread falsehoods for personal or partisan benefits.

    Spikes said social media is not the only culprit in the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation. But it has made it possible for more people than ever before to be part of the spread of propaganda, lies and other information that is just too easy to retweet and share with the touch of a button.

    “Unfortunately, the more outlandish information that may have a very low level of truth,” he said, “travels much faster.”

    A Stonington voter, 63-year-old Ann Tigges, agreed during the forum at Stonington Free Library saying, “People tend to believe everything they read on a screen without asking themselves ‘Where is this information from? Who is delivering it?’ ... When people forward things to me, I send it back to them and say, ‘Do you really actually believe this? And where did you get it? And did you fact check it?’ And I don't think very many people bother to do that, right?”

    While liberals and conservatives are both susceptible to accepting falsehoods as truth, Spikes said, studies have shown that people on the right, especially those of a religious bent, are more likely to fall victim if their world view is to not question authority and institutions.

    “You see the prevalence of and spread and creation of disinformation on the right side more than on the left,” he said. He added, though, that “it could be argued that when someone of our own party is in (office) you get less questioning.”

    Adding to the problem, Spikes said, is the level of anonymity that many social media platforms provide, so there is no accountability for what is shared.

    But Spikes pointed out that our era of disinformation is far from the first to be encountered in the history of media. The age of yellow journalism that started in the latter part of the 19th century pandered to the basest instincts of newspaper readership and led to excesses perhaps best exemplified in William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to stir up a war between America and Spain. Hearst reportedly told an illustrator, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

    Now the war rages online, given the imprimatur of truth by its widespread distribution, but many local residents expressed concern that citizens haven’t developed the critical thinking skills necessary to discern fact from fiction.

    “Hard to know what to believe without extensive research,” said one of the forum participants who did not provide a name or age on The Day’s survey form.

    One attendee in New London suggested that social media outlets should highlight material posted online that has been fact checked, and they should flag information that has not been checked or has been found to be false.

    “I think there is intentional feeding of incorrect information on social media channels,” said a 57-year-old Lyme voter on her survey, who was one of 18 people attending the New London forum. “Foreign agents may be the culprit, but more likely extremists in the U.S.”

    The New London meeting, attended by state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, became a battleground for people on both sides of the political aisles concerned about misinformation and disinformation. Those on the conservative side tended to blame the mainstream media, with one 41-year-old from Groton suggesting on his survey that “the information exists but is being withheld or slanted too much,” and another from Preston saying in an email, “my distrust of most politicians, particularly on the left, and the media at large goes without question.”

    The Groton voter added on his survey, “I can trust Trump because I know when he is exaggerating.”

    Others expressed concern that people were being fed false or out-of-context information about voter fraud, leading a large number of people “to not believe election results,” as Diane Gracewski, 73, of Waterford wrote on her survey form. A 36-year-old from New London said “media distracts us from the real problems” and advocated for ranked-choice voting “to be able to hear more voices.”

    Spikes, the media expert from Northwestern, suggested that people need to work hard to find the truth and must consult multiple sources that have been consistently credible and verified. “When things start to line up a little too cleanly, think about what’s missing,” he said.

    “There are days where I'm like, is it going to be another civil war?” said a 77-year-old woman at the Stonington forum who didn’t want to be identified. “Is that where we're heading because people are just so hard-headed and refusing to see that the other guy might just have a point?”


    Ideas for fighting misinformation

    Regulate social media to ensure that posts are factual and not filled with hate speech.

    Ensure that more educational focus goes to improving critical thinking skills.

    People should develop more respect for reputable sources of news, better sourcing in news stories and more accountability.

    Media outlets and politicians should be more accountable when they provide inaccurate information.

    Voters should be more discerning in electing leaders.

    Social media outlets should be more transparent about their algorithms.

    Lawmakers should regulate artificial intelligence.

    The media should provide more critical analysis of the facts they present to the public.

    Educational institutions should do more to engage students both old and young in civics classes and media literacy.

    SOURCE: 36 members of the community who attended one of three voter forums held May 20-28, 2024 in New London, Old Lyme and Stonington. All these solutions won a majority of the vote in the two towns where they were discussed.

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