Digital tech rushes forward / Spread of false information affecting public opinions

Reuters file photo
A supporter of then U.S. President Donald Trump holds a U.S. flag with a reference to QAnon during a Trump rally in Oregon City, Ore., on Sept. 7, 2020.

For Nick Stutzman, a 40-year-old company employee in the U.S. state of Ohio, it all began when he gave a “like” response to a video clip titled “The Plan To Save The World.”

That led to his being a follower of QAnon, a group described as a political cult, until about half a year ago.

He saw posts such as ones saying that former U.S. President Donald Trump was a savior fighting dark forces on the internet. He had believed such stories.

‘Deep state’

Stutzman did not initially have a strong interest in politics. In autumn 2018, when news reports about suspicion of Trump’s intervention into judicial investigations created a public buzz, he just happened to see the video clip displayed on Facebook.

The narrative in the video clip was that the United States is ruled by a dark shadow government, mainly comprising elite people, and that forces called the “Deep State” tried to overthrow the Trump administration to protect their vested interests. It was a typical narrative of QAnon’s conspiracy theories.

After Stutzman clicked the “like” button, similar kinds of posts appeared on his computer screen one after another as recommended video clips.

Initially, he felt they were “crazy.” But he recalled that he gradually came to believe that the contents of the video clips were the truth.

Before he knew it, he was spending more and more time checking social media posts both at home and at his workplace. Sometimes, he spent eight hours a day doing so.

Gradually, the delusion ballooned and he began to enthusiastically speak about the theory to family members and friends. Friends left him and his marriage collapsed.

QAnon rampage

QAnon is characterized by its members spreading false, demagogic stories about real politics on the internet. In recent years, QAnon has been on a rampage, mainly in the United States.

According to research in January by research firm Ipsos, 40% of Americans believed the QAnon theory that a “dark side” government exists.

What happens if a huge number of people believe such false information?

On Jan. 6 this year, a crowd of thousands of people supporting then President Trump stormed into the Capitol in Washington, and five people, including a police officer, died.

Among the crowd, there were some carrying guns and gasoline bombs.

The mobs shouted such things as that the presidential election result was unlawfully manipulated or that they should bring down the Deep State. Many of the phrases were hand-me-down thoughts of QAnon.

Director Christopher Wray of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which probed the incident, warned during a Senate hearing in April, “Social media has become, in many ways, the key amplifier to domestic violent extremism just as it has for malign foreign influence.”

Virus suspicions

Stutzman is a rare case because he was able to escape from the world of conspiracy theories.

In spring last year, QAnon denied the existence of the virus and spread a view that people did not need to wear masks, while infections with the virus were explosively spreading in the United States.

Since around then, Stutzman began to feel a growing suspicion that something wasn’t right.

And in November last year, seeing Trump’s behavior after he lost in the presidential election was eye-opening for Stutzman.

The then president, the supposed savior of the world, cried sour grapes repeatedly, saying that the election was fraudulent or his victory was being stolen. Seeing Trump’s deeds and words became a decisive factor for Stutzman.

Stutzman is now pessimistic about the future that will be brought about by social media. He said in disgust that unless social media systems change, people who are encouraged by conspiracy theories will take to the streets with arms again.

Falsehoods faster than facts

In many cases, false bits of information are more exciting and attract more attention from people than facts.

According to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, false information proliferates six times faster than actual facts.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a British research organization, has published a report with similar results.

When the ISD checked posts about the novel coronavirus on Facebook from January to April last year, about 6.2 million posts were linked to the World Health Organization’s official website, while about 80 million, or 13 times as many, were linked to false information sites.

Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School who is known for studies of information technology companies, said that extreme information and false information confuse people’s thoughts and make them intolerant. She also said that such information divides society and weakens democracy.

According to a report carried by the British science journal Nature, 51.2% of Americans replied that “lack of attention” was the reason they shared false information from social media sites. Many social media users do not examine whether information is correct when they share it with acquaintances.