BY HOPE MELTON
We live in an information ecosystem that shapes how we think and talk about issues. It impacts our capacity for civil discourse. This ecosystem thrives on disinformation and outrage, leading to false framing of important issues. In the absence of shared core values such as truth, respect, and responsibility, and common norms of behavior, disinformation campaigns open our society to tyranny.
Disinformation is false, or inaccurate, information that is spread deliberately to convince others of untruth for political gain. Its intention is deceit, sowing doubt and confusion that impairs our ability to discern reality. It utilizes several simple techniques: false framing of core issues by using the wrong words, hyperbolic rhetoric, and personal attacks. Campaigns of disinformation are dangerous because they work.
For example, population growth forecasts used in city planning are estimates — rough judgments based on regional economic, demographic, and market assumptions. A disinformation campaign changes the word “forecasts” to “targets,” with the implication that there is a precise goal, chosen by elected officials for questionable purposes.
Mischaracterization of core issues leads to false framing and false arguments. Repeated over and over, falsely framed issues take on a veneer of truth. By distorting reality, they inhibit our ability to focus our thinking and conversation on the real issues. Most importantly, they impede our ability to work together to devise effective solutions.
Disinformation campaigns also use incendiary rhetoric. Terms like “massive” and “drastic,” to describe urban development or population growth “targets,” is intended to cause alarm and stoke fear. Inflammatory language gives rise to anger and hostility. This is especially worrisome when fear, anger and hostility encourage unwarranted personal attacks that cause emotional stress and wear people down over time. This can drive them out of public service or civic engagement.
Incendiary rhetoric is a form of incivility that polarizes communities and impairs the basic functioning of government. For example, during public hearings for Edina’s Comprehensive Plan, people clapped and vocalized support for statements they favored even though this violates public hearing rules and after the mayor asked them, several times, to refrain from doing so. With Edina students in attendance at that meeting, this disrespect for civility and authority is hardly the example we should set for them.
Finally, disinformation detaches meaning from truth and separates itself from consequence. Those who spread disinformation distort reality and therefore, they don’t need to care about the consequences of their actions. They simply deny that the consequences take place.
What can be done to limit the corrosive effects of disinformation? Most importantly, be a critical thinker. When someone finds it necessary to tell you they are going to “deliver the facts,” be skeptical. Go to the source, such as the city of Edina web site, for definitions and factual information. Do not rely on someone else’s rendering of an issue. Do your due diligence, read about the issues, and question emotionally charged language.
In the words of George Orwell, “Lies turn human beings into objects to be controlled.” If you respect your own mind and value liberty, think for yourself.
– A former urban planner, Hope Melton serves as the coordinator for the Edina Neighbors for Affordable Housing.