The disinformation virus, here to stay.

I have to admit, I am a terrible skeptic when it comes to what people share on our networks.

I’m especially weary of what sails through WhatsApp. Are you? I belong to just four groups but I bet you subscribe to more. I often delete those memes and videos labeled ‘shared many times.’ Which means I have to either opt out of the network (and miss a grand aunt’s anniversary, and family pudding recipe) or put up with the drivel. One grins and bears it! But disinformation is much more than repetitive noise.

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AS FOR MY GRUMPY SKEPTICISM, I put it down to my having once worked in marketing. Or being a secret fan of that 1974 book by Wilson Bryant Key, Subliminal Seduction. It accused advertisers of secretly painting seductive shapes into ice cubes. Conspiracy theory isn’t new! I scoffed, but it made me look deeper into the psychology of marketing and media.

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Sometimes I feel like a retired MI6 agent, looking for hidden meaning and toxic residue in everything we are served on our pixel platters. And I don’t just mean ice cubes. (Hey, just for larks, and speaking of things made of ice, did you know that the Baskin Robbins logo hides in plain sight the number 31 to represent its different flavors? OK, not sneaky, but interesting.)

And then there’s disinformation.

I bring up dis– and mis-information a lot in my classes. Is the headline clickbait? Or is it simply stating a fact? “Has the photograph on the cover of a book been doctored? For what reasons?”  

Reminding students to ‘trust but verify’ is a good practice for all teachers. But even more so these days, when young people are being strafed by much more nonsense than we were on any given day. Memes, for instance — with double toppings of satire and sarcasm — have become the conveyor belt of what passes for ‘news’ through TikTok. But they are also being exploited to transmit conspiracy theories, and racism, as this piece in The New York Times recently put it. 

 In the US, we are in the midst of the cacophony aka midterm elections. If I stack the political pamphlets that arrive in my mailbox end to end, they could circle my property. Twice. A new variant of this virus is the fake newspaper. Take these two that arrived in my mailbox last week. It’s an insult to even call these newspapers. NPR calls them zombie newspapers. 

One of them could not even get the headline to not bleed off into the column divider. The quality of the photos (one even gave photo credit to Wikipedia!) looks as if they were printed on a dot-matrix printer someone had dug up in their attic. One pretended to be a Catholic newspaper, The Arizona Catholic Tribune; the other was called Grand Canyon Times. Both had the same subtitle under the masthead: Real Data. Real Value. Real News. What were they thinking? Couldn’t the ‘editors’ even properly disguise the fact that one was a clone of the other, with a different web address?

Speaking of which, the fake newspaper websites (ha!) were a dead giveaway. Using a simple Whois search I traced the latter to an organization called Epik Holdings that is listed under a Wikipedia entry as a registrar of websites operated by neo-Nazi and extremist groups. So much for the ‘media’ we have to deal with now. Makes me want to address disinformation right through the year!

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