Countering Powerlessness

Ethan Zuckerman

Words have always had consequences. As playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839, "The pen is mightier than the sword." But words - and particularly false words - have seldom been more powerful than they have in the past few years. False words led people to storm the Capitol of the United States and attempt to overturn an election. False words have caused millions of people around the world to refuse the Coronavirus vaccine, which continues to spread and kill people.

As social media has become a major form of human interaction, the ability of people to write and share disinformation has grown profoundly. The impact of these words is not just within online spaces: journalists have turned to social media as a way to gain insights on what people are thinking and feeling, amplifying words shared with a person's friends to the point where they can reach millions. In the process, everyone from marketers to politicians have discovered that they can manipulate the world - or at least try - by sharing information or disinformation.

What can we do when faced with a world where people lie as a way of shaping the world to their own ends? First, we have to get smart. Disinformation - the conscious, intentional spreading of false information - is not an accident. It's a strategy. When we encounter information that is surprising, unsettling, or even a little too comfortable, we need to ask ourselves a set of questions: How does the author know this is true? What is s/he trying to persuade me of? Who benefits if I believe this to be true? How can I check this information against other sources I trust?

This form of active reading is part of the greater response we need to have to disinformation. We need to act, and not to withdraw. We need to be sure disinformation does not paralyze us.

The main goal of disinformation is not to persuade us that false things are true. Instead, the goal is to make us feel powerless. Think of how powerless we feel in a world where people believe things that are clearly not true. We can feel like there's nothing we can do to fight the coronavirus when faced with people who believe the disease is a hoax or a plot. We feel like we are living in a different reality from people who have believed the lie, that there's nothing we can do to reach them or persuade them.

Dictators love making people feel powerless, because it keeps them safe. Powerless people will never challenge those in power. And disinformation wants to keep us powerless, fighting to assert that's true rather than challenging those who are in power.

This website helps us learn how disinformation works, why and how people lie and how we might fight back. But we must remember WHY we fight back. As Taiwanese people know, perhaps better than anyone else in the world, people who stand up and resist together are strong. Disinformation tries to keep us from acting, telling us the world is too confusing for us to make a difference. Our obligation is to face disinformation bravely, understanding that its goal is to make us passive and isolated, and to resist with our whole hearts.