Breaking the vicious cycle of misinformation

What happens when hate spreads online and what we can do to change it


This article first appeared in the “4 Our Future” Newsletter. To sign up, click here -- or use the sign up form at the bottom of this article.

We do not live in a world of hate -- but these days, it certainly feels that way.

It’s impossible to go one day without seeing or hearing hateful rhetoric from one group of people to another, whether it’s on social media, in the news, or maybe even in your close circles. Even those of us who don’t feel hate toward others are probably talking about what we hear others say and do, spreading that rhetoric like a virus, despite our best intentions.

However, in spite of everything we see, hear, and discuss, hate is not the foundation of our nation or of our communities. Compassion and prosperity and fellowship are. But hate is at the forefront of our lives because it dominates the digital world, and it can embolden people to behave violently and destructively in the real world -- behaviors we see documented on social media, in the news, in our circles...

The whole experience of spreading and becoming influenced by hate online is a harmful cycle, one that we can break together. And today we’re going to address just how to do that.

Understanding misinformation

You’ve likely heard the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” recently in relation to U.S. politics and the 2020 presidential election. The terms mean essentially the same thing, but for all intents and purposes, we’re going to stick with “misinformation” today.

Misinformation is inaccurate information that is intentionally produced and shared in an effort to deceive people.

Individuals and groups may spread misinformation for a variety of reasons such as: they are trying to rope people into a false reality or narrative that benefits them and their agenda, or people may incorrectly believe they are sharing truthful information that could help inform others. Either way, misinformation has clogged up digital media platforms so drastically in the U.S. that a good percentage of the population may believe something false to actually be true, while others believe something else entirely to be true -- hence the dramatic polarization among Americans we see today.

Here’s a recent example: Whether you are a Democrat, Republican or neither, it’s safe to assume you’re familiar with former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, in which he pushed a narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and wrongly handed to now-President Joe Biden. Far before votes were even cast in the election last year, Trump sowed doubt of the election’s validity and security among his supporters, encouraging them to lose faith in the system. Once the voting period was complete and votes were being counted in favor of Biden, the former president continued pushing his narrative, issuing several false statements claiming that election fraud was to blame for his loss, and that election processes were either rigged or inaccurate all across the country. Bipartisan officials and election officials reported that the 2020 election was the most secure election in American history -- even the former U.S. attorney general in Trump’s administration said there was no widespread election fraud. But Trump continued to push lies on his followers, who of course like and trust him, and so, many believed that he was telling the truth. For months he would not relent, filing lawsuits in several states in an attempt to overturn the election results in his favor.

Then, on Jan. 6, an extremist group of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block Congress’ confirmation of electoral votes -- an event that left lawmakers terrified for their lives and left five people dead, including a police officer. Those extremists believed so strongly in Trump’s narrative that they were willing to break federal laws, destroy government property, disrupt the democratic process and potentially harm the lives of those inside the Capitol.

And thus, the cycle.

Misinformation is widely shared and believed true by many, and a portion of those believers commit acts, often violent, in support of their beliefs -- typically in line with guidance from the idea’s perpetrator. So many people know that Trump was pushing a false narrative so that he could unethically claim a second term as president, yet so many others believed his lies and still do to this day.

So why do people so strongly believe misinformation that many of us know to actually be false?

Our topic expert Beatriz Buarque says that there are many reasons why people are roped into misinformation, extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories, but there is one major, somewhat unexpected reason: People long for a sense of belonging.


Mrs. Buarque, CEO and founder of global nonprofit Words Heal the World, is a reporter-turned-researcher who has extensive experience studying radical groups and their use of misinformation to recruit others into their groups, into their realities. As a doctoral student at the University of Manchester, Mrs. Buarque is currently diving deeper into a form of radical ideologies that feel more familiar to us in the United States -- alt-right conspiracy theories -- so she has a strong understanding of the digital media culture we’re experiencing today.

According to Buarque, extremist groups or groups with radical ideologies often appeal to people who are looking for a sense of belonging, looking for others who they identify with -- and unfortunately, those groups are often focused on “othering” people who are different from them, discriminating against people based on things like their race or their religion. Sometimes, people put others down to make themselves feel better. Sometimes, people connect with radical groups that feel a certain way of being is superior, because they then feel if they live in that way, they are superior themselves.

And sometimes, people do not know any better. Depending on where you grow up, where you attend school, who you socialize with, or what media you consume, an idea may feel “normal” to you just because that’s all you know.

People naturally long to belong and feel valued. Young people, in particular, now seek that belonging online. Groups, regardless of how radical their beliefs, make others feel welcome, seen, and appreciated, creating that sense of belonging. Especially now amid a global pandemic that has isolated billions of people from one another, Buarque says individuals are seeking a sense of belonging more than ever these days.

“We are living an extraordinary moment of great anxiety, in which many people have lost their jobs, their loved ones,” Buarque said. “People are spending more time on the internet, people have lost their friends … people feel lonely and are suffering from anxiety.”

Groups hoping to recruit people use the internet and social media to attract individuals seeking a place to belong, sharing Facebook posts and writing inaccurate articles on questionable news sites to reel them in. Their misinformation spreads like wildfire -- both by people who believe in it and people who are warning others not to -- and some latch onto it and allow it to take hold in their lives.

Buarque says it is emotion, not rationality, that drives people into the arms of extremist ideologies.

“It’s not that hate became so prominent today,” Buarque said. “Hate is an emotion, like fear. Today, society is ruled by digital media. Everything is interconnected … it facilitates the communication of emotions, and hate and fear are very powerful emotions.”

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are now working harder to block the spread of misinformation within their omnipresent circles, but they can’t catch everything. And those two platforms are only part of the problem.

So what can we, as media consumers, do to stop the spread of misinformation?

Researcher Buarque says, first and foremost, do not share the misinformation, even in an attempt to warn others or show that it’s false. Doing so only amplifies the untruthful message, sharing that message with an even larger audience -- which is counterintuitive.

Instead, she says the answer is transitioning yourself from a media consumer to a media controller, in both your mindset and in practice. Sure, you spend most of your time on your phone, on the internet, reading and consuming -- but you also post (or, you have the ability to), you share posts, you repost. You have the power to amplify messages of truth, of accuracy, of goodness, so why not use your digital media presence to do just that?

That’s what Words Heal the World does: teaches young people how to responsibly use digital media to create positive content that challenges online hate speech and types of extremism. And Buarque says their work has made an impact in Brazil and in the U.K.

Buarque says that if every single person was more intentional about how they use digital media -- such as being mindful about where you get your information, researching the information you consume for accuracy, reading entire articles and not just headlines, and only sharing posts that are helpful and uplifting -- we can all break the cycle of that hatred that dominates the internet.

I know, using kindness and rationality to combat hate is not a novel idea -- maybe only us optimists believe it’ll work. But it truly can.

As a society, as a global civilization, the internet was sprung upon us. The implications of the evolution of technology could not possibly be accounted for when the internet was created. There was no user manual for how to navigate the impact of technological changes over time. And so much about the digital world changes so quickly.

All of this to say: It is not our fault for not knowing how to use digital media responsibly. Nobody taught us how.

Facebook and Twitter leaders arguably didn’t know the impact their platforms could have on the spread of misinformation or the recruitment of people into extremist groups when they were conceptualized. You did not create your Instagram account with goals of wreaking havoc on your community and peers (at least, I hope not). Despite our best intentions, the digital world has evolved into a marquee that showcases the worst of the worst, making us feel like we truly live in a world full of hate. But instead of just playing along, we can cultivate the world we want to see by being more intentional (and kind) with our online presence.

And just because we were never taught how to use digital media this way, doesn’t mean we can’t start teaching younger generations just that.

Some groups are finally teaching people how to responsibly use the internet for good. In the U.S., organizations like Operation250 and Tuesday’s Children are focusing their efforts on American youth, to help teach them peacebuilding and responsible communication and online behavior.

There is no better time than right now to change the way you interact online, and to teach your children, friends, and peers how they can be more responsible, too. If every one of us chooses to put good into the world, who knows -- maybe we’ll change it for good.

You can sign up for the For Out Future newsletter below, where once every few weeks I’ll dissect national issues -- like racism in healthcare, a struggling education system, homelessness and poverty and more -- but with a local focus, so you can better understand how these issues are impacting our state and region.

We’re also going to hear from experts, as well as local organizations that are working to address these issues and make a difference in their communities. There may even be opportunities for you to get involved, yourself.

On a related note: Misinformation has been spreading recently in regards to coronavirus vaccines and their safety and efficacy. Scientists around the world have been researching coronaviruses for decades, and have been working on developing a vaccine for years. The world’s top scientists stand behind the COVID-19 vaccines and their safety -- and those vaccines are truly our best option for returning to normalcy after this devastating pandemic.

Unsure? Do some research for yourself -- don’t believe everything you see on social media. Find a reputable source -- emphasis on reputable -- and read as much as you can (entire articles, not just headlines). You can find tons of COVID-19 vaccine information on ClickOnDetroit right here.

Related: Metro Detroiters: Be cautious of ‘pink slime’ news sites spreading false info

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.