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Facts Over Fiction: Learning to Discern the Difference

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Many people are familiar with the saying “facts over feelings”, but it seems as though it’s becoming increasingly challenging to practice. While disinformation tactics aren’t new, especially for Black populations, accurate and timely information is necessary for activating one’s rights and being heard. We all suffer when the voices of the most vulnerable are absent or their attention is consumed by conspiracy theories rather than constructive conversations. Credible resources are now more valuable than ever, but In today's digital age, misinformation has become the norm.  Misinformation is costly to the U.S. economy and it’s estimated that $78B is lost across multiple sectors including financial, political, and healthcare according to Statista. The Black community is in an uncomfortable position. Heightened feelings of distrust of news outlets, feeling lied to by elected officials, and suffering severe consequences of nuanced interpretations of laws and ordinances are disorienting. A collective consciousness requires collective discernment, yet absent of understanding of how to process information and build trust in sources each individual and ally is at risk of incorrect understanding. This era has been termed “post-truth”  or the era of “fake news”, yet we all could use a reminder to be conscious about what makes resources credible and how to leverage the economy of facts and stay out of our feelings.

Misinformation costs the quality of Black lives

There is much to be learned from the perpetuation of inaccurate information for the Black perspective. Pain tolerance is one example of wrong information that has had long-lasting impacts. A British doctor Benjamin Moseley presented in his 1787 writings titled “A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; and on The Climate of the West-Indies,” that Blacks could endure much more pain than White bodies. This widespread misinformation resulted in validating the abusive, torturous, and approved experimentation on enslaved Black women by J. Marion Sims who is known as the father of modern gynecology. The lifespan of this lie is long. A 2021 Forbes article highlighted that 83% of Black Americans have had a negative experience when looking for pain relief, and a second study found that in 90% of cases of US primary care  Blacks had been prescribed lower pain doses in comparison to Whites.

Distrust due to misinformation and rumors that Covid-19 was a hoax resulted in fewer Black people getting vaccinated. The disease was killing Blacks at disproportionate rates. In Chicago for example Blacks were dying at 6 times higher rates than whites. Confusion and lack of credible sources coupled with pre-existing health disparities and tense relationships with the medical community created an ideal situation for the infodemics' devastating effect on vulnerable populations,  which is an increased amount of “false or misleading information during a disease outbreak,” according to the World Health Organization.

Barriers to Believability

Tackling misinformation includes addressing the dearth of diversity and divisive narratives. Independent media and social media technologies have made it possible for the voices of many-- trained and untrained, professional non-professional specialists or journalists to be heard. Independent media in print and online are considered credible sources and have made it possible for the voices of many to be heard, it should be fairly simple to ground truth information but not everyone is as trustworthy of sources. Another Pew Research report highlighted that for Black information and content consumers, it isn’t so straightforward. Trust in news or television isn’t strong; 63% of Black adults reported news on Black people is less positive in comparison to other races, 50% said that news is missing relevant information and 43% say the news is also more stereotypical in comparison to other ethnicities.

Journalists are gatekeepers of truth and knowledge, yet where do we as a community go to get our facts if we increasingly don’t trust the media? How do we participate in the creation of accurate information that benefits identifying our collective goals? What role does discernment play in elevating our march toward reparations, equity or environmental justice? For our community we have been the recipients of unethical extraction of information, we have suffered the consequences of misinformation about our bodies, intelligence, and abilities and we have suffered from the lack of adequate and relevant information. Facts over feelings is more than an idiom…it is the pursuit of correct understanding.

The rise of AI is more concerning than exciting when it comes to the technology being used for finding accurate information. A recent Pew Research Center poll on “Growing public concern about the role of artificial intelligence in daily life” showed that 27% of respondents believe AI will hurt finding accurate information, 33% believe it will help more than it will hurt and 40% are unsure. Policing of falsehoods has now become a commodity. In 2022 online giants YouTube and Google announced investing $13.2M in grant monies to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute. A network of 135 fact-checking organizations from 65 countries across 80 languages will be supported to push back on the publishing of misinformation.

Public opinion has grown in favor of companies and governments' intervention to secure accuracy online and protect the public from false information. 55% of Americans are supportive of the U.S. government restricting falsehoods but the partisan differences are striking. 70% of Democrat or Democratic-leaning Americans support government restrictions in comparison to 39% of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents according to a Pew Research Survey on restricting false and violent information online. While the public waits on the government and policy tools to combat fake news there is increased value and importance of credible and trustworthy sources. All media outlets aren’t seen as equally credible. In a 2022 survey of adults out of eleven major media outlets ABC and CBS were the most credible. National Public Radio, MSNBC, Fox News and HuffPost had fewer than 50% of respondents agreeing that they were credible sources of news. Younger generations have moved away from traditional news consumption and towards social media. Millennials and Gen Z’rs are increasingly trusting influencers over journalists.

Influencers Are the New Plugs

Following an account can be just as intellectually nourishing as reading a newspaper. Influencers are often seen as being more organic and trustworthy, humanized. People trust people and for the Black community, influencers are accessible, and their content is culturally relevant and timely. Campaigns and partnerships also appear to be more in alignment with the influencers' personal brand arguably strengthening the reliability of the account holder and the company partner. The longer an account is followed the more that influencer is seen to be trustworthy. Even virtual influencers have built up confidence in social media users. Virtual influencers are digital creations designed in every way to be relatable in appearance to desired audiences. Hair, apparel, and even voice characteristics and features are designed with intention. In a survey conducted of social media users ages 35-44, the top consumers made up 45%. With the virtual influencer market being valued at $4.6 billion and a 26% increase by 2025 non-human influencers will be inviting more consumers to listen, buy, and most importantly believe in the messaging behind it all.

Mindfully Melanated

For Black and other ethnic minorities our efforts for equity and justice are anchored in truth, and two things can be true at the same time. How we discern information is an essential practice and first happens at the individual level.  There is a healthy way to ground truth and a professional way to take accountability for passing on less-than-accurate or out-of-context information. Facts by definition can be proven to be true, yet any truth communicated in a way that is out of context inherently is misleading. So what do we do? What is at stake? How do we protect ourselves from living and being complicit in accepting untruths? First, it requires telling yourself the truth about what influences how and who you believe. A physician may have a degree but you place more weight on the words of people you like and respect. Understand what contributes to your own bias and attachments to being right and your aversions to being wrong. For example, if there are issues that require research and you solely look for resources that support your position and ignore any other information you may miss the opportunity for self-correction. Baseless assumptions, conspiracy theories, and rumors should not determine the decisions for where you live, how you care for your body, or who you vote for, understand that there are external forces banking on your disbelief. As long as you are distracted with untruths, your energy is redirected away from righteous causes and real-world solutions.

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