On education and critical thinking against disinformation

Thoughts from Jay Kaspian King's NYT opinion piece: "It's on us to become more discerning"

The opinion piece. Quoted pieces have my emphasized additions.

...online outrage will almost always be about things that are consumed online, like Rogan’s podcast, actors and comedians who say something offensive and some supposedly salacious books that are being dubiously canceled by the online right.‌‌The ecosystem is closed and, at this point, almost entirely self-referential. News media, entertainment and sports go in; outrage over news media, entertainment and sports comes out.

I have found this amusing over time: how journalism has evolved to be a more sophisticated form of social media, in a crude way of putting it. Some years ago, when I first started seeing online articles from prominent news publications quoting Twitter tweets, Facebook/Instagram/Reddit posts, etc. as supplementary sources of information, and then eventually too as primary subjects. It makes sense. It's not like social media is "just" its own frivolous entertainment vacuum; it is a platform used by real people, including major public figures. As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, it can be used to garner support to storm our nation's Capitol. As the Facebook Papers leaked, it can cause major effects on people, especially children and teenagers.

On Twitter

I also think about this phenomenon of virtue signalling and why I think Twitter is an especially terrible form of social media except for memes and cute dog pictures. It is so easy and addicting to create a bite-size bit of text (up to 200-something characters!) and post it on your account, and have it Loved and Re-Tweeted to spread like wildfire. How Twitter UI is designed for quick catchy headlines yet folks use it for very serious, often controversial topics – because, of course, that stuff is what attracts the most attention and interaction – that would be much more suitable for lengthier posts on other UIs or, god forbid, a live, psychologically safe, and civil conversation. Tweeting or re-tweeting your support for something virtuous or your condemnation for something abhorent may feel righteous at the time, but what truly have you done to make the world a better place? Do you really think you're changing other people's minds with your bite-size words, or are you more-so just preaching to the choir and angering the other side? ‌‌

On education

Wealthier, cosmopolitan students with highly educated parents were better at spotting disinformation than poorer students from rural areas. Black and Latino kids did worse than white kids.We should think about how to educate the public effectively about vaccines, but we should avoid the temptation to ascribe all political difference to the brainwashing of everyone who disagrees with us.

Here I think about my gratitude for my higher education, specifically in the humanities from a liberal arts school. That is not to say that other people must follow the same or similar path as me, but I know that the humanities and a liberal arts education are designed to help critical thinking and open-mindedness. How I wish others had access to opportunities that encourage these traits that are difficult to cultivate on one's own. How I wish the United States invested more resources to increase access to those opportunities. How do we compare against other countries in this regard?

On politics and propaganda

I also think about how we like to find someone or something to blame (Big Tech in this case) for our problems to solve, often short term or quickly, without looking to longer term systemic issues such as inequitable access to education that have made such phemonena as Big Disinfo possible and all the more fruitful.

At the same time, propaganda has existed even in industrialized countries for decades or centuries. It's just that much easier to create and spread in the age of the Internet, and especially during the pandemic when the Internet is the primary way so many people connect these days. I do think it is naive of King to imply that Big Disinfo would go away if we just fixed education access, but I agree that it is a worthwhile thing to do. I also still want Big Tech to be more regulated and take more responsibility for all the havoc it is allowing.

To the last line mentioning politics, there have been at least a few or several studies done to show that vaccine stances (a major current topic re: Big DisInfo) are largely tied to political alliances (as, ironically, he mentions earlier), rather than tied to age, education, or socio-economic status. So, that does seem to de-emphasize King's argument that education access fixes will help at least on this particular Big DisInfo topic (and probably others).

Related is this Washington Post piece:

During those long hours alone, he struggled with how strongly he had held to beliefs about the vaccines without really examining them. Increasingly, he felt a responsibility to warn others about his mistakes, so he began writing to friends, family and even strangers on Facebook, urging them to get the shots. Somewhere along the way, he got vaccinated himself.“When you sit there and you see your wife on life support because of covid, you throw out politics,” he said later. “None of that matters anymore.”