Indiana’s own Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, recently warned that not only did Russia meddle in the 2016 presidential elections, it also intends to influence the 2018 midterm elections the same way: by spreading disinformation via “propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.” So how does this work? Well, the Clinton/Ono false rumor is a good example.
During the presidential election cycle, a website well known for spreading false stories published a story wherein Yoko Ono allegedly claimed to have had an affair with Hillary Clinton. Ridiculous! I mean, no one would believe it, right? You would be wrong if that were your response.
A friend of mine was attending a dinner with his sisters in-laws, a group who despised Clinton. When they shared the story with him, my friend was shocked that they could actually take such a story at face value. They did not know the source of the story, they did not gauge whether the source was reliable, but what they did do was swear to him it was true. They refused to listen to any arguments to the contrary. They refused to consider the Snopes report declaring it to be false.
The reason the group so strongly believed an obviously ridiculous story is confirmation bias. This is when an individual selectively searches for or considers information that confirms his or her opinion or belief. Therefore, if you hate Hillary Clinton and the story comes across your Facebook feed that she had an affair with Yoko Ono, it confirms your belief that Clinton is a terrible person who had an affair with possibly the second-most-hated woman in America, the woman blamed for the breakup of the Beatles.
Confirmation bias is apolitical. For example, I cannot tell you the number of false stories I have read regarding violence allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants both here and in Europe. If the Russians want to divide our country further on the issue of immigration, all they have to do is circulate false stories regarding violent actions by immigrants or make up a false study claiming negative economic impact by immigrants issued by a fake immigration expert. People who are already biased against immigrants will likely jump on the internet and continue to spread these falsehoods because such stories confirm their own beliefs.
Dealing with confirmation bias is not easy. The solution requires that we recognize we have a bias and then have a willingness to deal with it by not readily accepting rumors and jumping to conclusions without going through a process of verification. As we all should know, just because it appears on the internet does not mean it is true. Our young people need to be educated on how to verify an internet story.
I am blessed to have a circle of friends from across the political spectrum because I do not let politics prescribe my friendships. When I am sent such stories or one pops up on my Facebook feed, I (politely) call the sender or poster out on it. I provide them with the web address for the Snopes or fact-checker site that discredits the rumor. I have yet to have someone acknowledge that he or she was mistaken.
We can stop the Russian influence on our elections and our society simply by not blindly accepting whatever pleases us on the internet. The question is, will we? Can we?
If we don’t, then guess who wins.•
Click here for more Forefront columns.
Celestino-Horseman is an attorney and represents the Indiana Latino Democratic Caucus on the Democratic State Central Committee. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.