Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Disinformation and meanness. What is going on?!

"Escaping the Nest" (detail)  E. van Lidth de Jeude

It just hit me that maybe ten years ago I was worried about the rise of misinformation on social media. I saw it once in a while; people posting things from known biased sources, or just stating information they assumed was correct but wasn’t. Extensive fact-checking became more necessary than I had felt it was, before, since even trusted sources seemed infiltrated with presumption and error. Or maybe I was just becoming more aware. 

Recently, though, it feels like disinformation is the norm, and complicated with some serious cruelty. On the bigger social media groups I’m a part of (chicken-keeping, canning, foraging, mushrooms, birds, education, etc.) it’s just absolutely normal for somebody to post a question and receive 30–70% wrong answers. It seems people have just become accustomed to stating an uneducated guess as fact. (And seriously — for canning, foraging, mushrooms, chickens, and schooling, this can lead to disaster, for example when someone asks for ID on a poisonous mushroom, and half the responses say it’s edible, and most of the other half are phallus jokes.) And then there are the people berating each other, not just for being wrong, but for correcting the mistakes, as well. Or for totally unrelated things. Like when said phallus jokes become linked to anti-trans attacks. It gets awful out there.

THEN there’s the morality war. There is a propensity for people (mostly white men, I’m sorry to say), to stick their uneducated opinions into posts about LGBTQ2IA+, indigenous, children’s rights, women’s rights, and BIPOC issues… again, as facts. Many of these “facts” are colonial constructs held by our society because they keep white men in power (and because the rest of us think they ensure our continued prosperity). But many are now also just lies made up by conspiracy theorists (like all the supposed chemical, psychological and media conspiracies to make our kids gay or trans or supportive of minority rights…) Sure, there are many sides to every story, but some things are actually not happening. I’m not even getting into the massive quagmire of people in power (often leaders of large corporate enterprises, politicians and religious leaders) using minorities as stepping-stones to more power. Some of us use these crimes as security for our privilege, without ever questioning ourselves.

In my art life this takes shape as criticism and fear: Am I appropriating symbols that are proprietary to a marginalized group that I’m not a member of? Rainbow spectra and feathers were important in my work before I became aware of appropriation, and it’s been hard to sideline them, even though I know how important it is. Even harder was the bickering between artists and members of the LGBTQ2IA+ and BIPOC communities. Oh yeah, and the outright hate-filled rhetoric between some feminists of different stripes. These issues make communicating online really fraught, even without the added question of misinformation or disinformation.

What is going on?! Why is our culture disintegrating into this kind of nastiness and ignorance? As a long-time unschooling parent who notices the lack of this behaviour in the unschooling groups, it’s easy to feel like it might have some kind of relationship with our education system. Especially since unschooling mindset is one of curiosity, acceptance and learning, and unfortunately the compulsory, competitive nature of our school system can provoke a rebellion against curiosity and learning, as well as a propensity for bullying tactics. The rebellion against understanding and the bullying are apparent in a lot of the online attacks I’ve seen. But I think that, in the bigger picture, there’s a deeper reason. We’re experiencing a massive cultural shift. Our minds are opening. And that’s just messy.

We’re threatened from all angles as climate change changes every single foundation our cultures were built on (predictability of seasons, harvests, weather, migration, and therefore employment, finances, housing, healthcare, and even cultural norms). So in this state of growing societal panic, some people are trying to keep things as they were (ignoring the fact that the great majority of underprivileged people have already been suffering these unpredictabilities forever). Some are taking opportunities to fight for rights long-denied to them. Some, like me, are gleefully running headlong into the change, wanting to create a new and better world out of the chaos, and ALL of us are rather ungrounded in the process. There’s so much change, so much fear and threat, that we’re all just kind of scrabbling for understanding all the time. I guess it’s not surprising that a lot of people are confused about the facts, in this kind of chaos! I am too. Everything seems to take so much research now! And patience, tact, and caution! And in the rush of this change, and the feeling of urgency everywhere, it’s not surprising we don’t feel we have time to fact-check or to come to an understanding of the issues we’re talking about before making assumptions and proclamations. 

So it’s frustrating, and sometimes even extremely upsetting, when people resort to cruelty because they feel threatened or inadequate in the face of such big unfathomable change. But it’s necessary that we remain patient and kind, reminding ourselves that these actions are a part of our societal growth. And I’m choosing to see it as a great sign that big change is happening. As a woman with many friends and family in marginalized communities, I’m glad to see my own and other people’s rights have a chance to be respected. As a person living on earth, I’m glad we are making changes that might make our future survivable! Maybe we can all take deep breaths and remind ourselves that everybody is confused and frightened. And maybe saying lots of wrong things is part of our process. We’re learning to learn and communicate! Real learning with an open heart and mind is how we will adapt to our new civilization. It’s how we will all grow to meet the challenge of a world none of us have lived in, before.

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