Misinformation fatigue sets in

“Misinformation isn’t going away, but it seems inevitable that people will stop caring.”

I expect 2021 will be the year misinformation fatigue sets in — a condition from which I will undeniably suffer and for which I will be partly to blame.

For the last three years, I’ve reported on “misinformation online” for NBC News. There were once slow news days on that beat. They disappeared when the pandemic struck.

Suddenly everyone was online, and the serial misinformers on my beat — folks who had spent the better part of a decade steadily pumping out lies in pursuit of political power or a few bucks — had a whole new audience of bored and confused people to whom they could sell their nonsense.

The pandemic coupled with a presidential election primed as “rigged” by the sitting president made 2020 a boom time for homegrown disinformation agents and the journalists charged with unraveling their constant lies. QAnon supporters won congressional elections, anti-vaxxers grew their movement tenfold, ratings soared for fringe and fact-free alternative news outlets helmed by conspiracy theorists, and roving bands of armed militias and street-fighting gangs gained members and support from a wide swath of the country.

Traditional news organizations responded to the increased demand for lies with more reporting on the misinformation work that went beyond fact-checks and tried to show the real-world harm that could come from such misinformation: people getting sick, public health officials terrorized, politicians’ lives threatened, young people of color in mostly white towns “othered” and intimidated, and worse. We also tried to hold tech companies responsible for the false claims spread on their platforms — pressure that undoubtedly played a part in the measures that Facebook, Twitter, and Google took to address misinformation, most memorably the seemingly endless information labels affixed to misleading or false claims.

But has any of it meant anything? Platforms seem very pleased with the moves they’ve made, but limited research suggests the fact-checking and the labeling and the reporting is more motion than progress — perhaps just further entrenching people into whatever camp they belong.

Misinformation isn’t going away, but it seems inevitable that people will stop caring. Much like compassion fatigue, a traumatic burnout experienced by caregivers, I expect people to be exhausted by a year of unbridled misinformation.

There’s a chance that this fatigue (aided by the ability to actually leave our homes, should these vaccines work as advertised) will lead to people giving up on the online social experiment — logging off and re-subscribing to their local newspaper (should it still exist), and finding their communities not just online, but IRL, though family, church, work, hobbies.

That’s a nice thing I sometimes think about.

But something else seems more likely. The pandemic has led more normal people to, as Facebook suggested, “find their community,” on some platform or other. They’ve found the news outlet that tells them what they want to hear, or the YouTube channel that pumps them with fantastical tales of imaginary wars between good and evil, or the Facebook group that reinforces those beliefs and links them with fellow travelers, or the Twitter follows who reliably “own” their perceived enemies.

It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.

I’m not holding my breath.

Brandy Zadrozny covers the internet, platforms, and politics for NBC News.

I expect 2021 will be the year misinformation fatigue sets in — a condition from which I will undeniably suffer and for which I will be partly to blame.

For the last three years, I’ve reported on “misinformation online” for NBC News. There were once slow news days on that beat. They disappeared when the pandemic struck.

Suddenly everyone was online, and the serial misinformers on my beat — folks who had spent the better part of a decade steadily pumping out lies in pursuit of political power or a few bucks — had a whole new audience of bored and confused people to whom they could sell their nonsense.

The pandemic coupled with a presidential election primed as “rigged” by the sitting president made 2020 a boom time for homegrown disinformation agents and the journalists charged with unraveling their constant lies. QAnon supporters won congressional elections, anti-vaxxers grew their movement tenfold, ratings soared for fringe and fact-free alternative news outlets helmed by conspiracy theorists, and roving bands of armed militias and street-fighting gangs gained members and support from a wide swath of the country.

Traditional news organizations responded to the increased demand for lies with more reporting on the misinformation work that went beyond fact-checks and tried to show the real-world harm that could come from such misinformation: people getting sick, public health officials terrorized, politicians’ lives threatened, young people of color in mostly white towns “othered” and intimidated, and worse. We also tried to hold tech companies responsible for the false claims spread on their platforms — pressure that undoubtedly played a part in the measures that Facebook, Twitter, and Google took to address misinformation, most memorably the seemingly endless information labels affixed to misleading or false claims.

But has any of it meant anything? Platforms seem very pleased with the moves they’ve made, but limited research suggests the fact-checking and the labeling and the reporting is more motion than progress — perhaps just further entrenching people into whatever camp they belong.

Misinformation isn’t going away, but it seems inevitable that people will stop caring. Much like compassion fatigue, a traumatic burnout experienced by caregivers, I expect people to be exhausted by a year of unbridled misinformation.

There’s a chance that this fatigue (aided by the ability to actually leave our homes, should these vaccines work as advertised) will lead to people giving up on the online social experiment — logging off and re-subscribing to their local newspaper (should it still exist), and finding their communities not just online, but IRL, though family, church, work, hobbies.

That’s a nice thing I sometimes think about.

But something else seems more likely. The pandemic has led more normal people to, as Facebook suggested, “find their community,” on some platform or other. They’ve found the news outlet that tells them what they want to hear, or the YouTube channel that pumps them with fantastical tales of imaginary wars between good and evil, or the Facebook group that reinforces those beliefs and links them with fellow travelers, or the Twitter follows who reliably “own” their perceived enemies.

It turns out maybe people don’t actually care about being lied to. And little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them — admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.

I’m not holding my breath.

Brandy Zadrozny covers the internet, platforms, and politics for NBC News.

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