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The misinformation age

Illustration of a man looking at a phone, with a digital projection coming from the screen and covering his eyes like it's a blindfold
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hostile powers undermining elections. Deepfake video and audio. Bots and trolls, phishing and fake news — plus of course old-fashioned spin and lies.

Why it matters: The sheer volume of assaults on fact and truth is undermining trust not just in politics and government, but also in business, tech, science and health care as well.

  • Beginning with this article, Axios is launching a series to help you navigate this new avalanche of misinformation, and illuminate its impact on America and the globe, through 2020 and beyond.

Our culture now broadly distrusts most claims to truth. Majorities of Americans say they've lost trust in the federal government and each other — and think that lack of trust gets in the way of solving problems, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

  • That's the worst part of all, as Axios' Felix Salmon points out: Even a small amount of misinformation infects everything and makes it much easier for people to disbelieve any fact.

The backstory: This didn't happen overnight, and has more than one root cause:

  • The rise of partisan TV news in the U.S., led by Fox and now widespread throughout cable news, broke the homogenizing and unifying hold of the old TV networks.
  • The internet sped things up and broke them down. It gave everyone a megaphone, allowing wider participation in political dialogue but also accelerating the spread of unvetted information and amplifying the most raucous and extreme voices.

This is the fertile ground on which bad actors today are merrily scattering the seeds of doctored videos, bogus memes, political slurs and other species of misinformation.

  • As Axios' Sara Fischer and Kaveh Waddell reported last month, misinformation tactics in the 2020 election are getting more sophisticated. New twists include smarter bots, pages and accounts that build a following before spreading deception, and a shift from mass platforms to more obscure and less monitored venues.

But it's not just the election. Today, misinformation is coming at us from all directions:

  • It's used against our government by international criminals.
  • It's also used by our government, with a president whose Twitter feed needs a fact check for practically every tweet.
  • It's used against businesses, by competitors and short-sellers who hope to profit from rumor.
  • It's also used by businesses on topics like climate science or tobacco research when the facts might harm their bottom lines.
  • It's used against social media platforms by partisans on the right making unsubstantiated charges of bias.
  • It's used against scientists when their findings, in areas like gun violence, reproductive health or (again) global warming, clash with deeply held partisan positions.
  • And it becomes a public health threat every time misinformation warriors clustered on both left and right spread doubt, yet again, about vaccines.
  • More than anywhere else, it's a huge problem for the news media, where public trust is at historic lows.

Between the lines: Our misinformation apocalypse has many contributors across the political spectrum, but one group benefits: authoritarians. They flourish when citizens overwhelmed with bad information give up on trying to figure out the truth.

The bottom line: We won't be able to solve our problems if we can't even agree which ones are real.

Go deeper:

Misinformation haunts 2020 primaries

New fake-news worry for Instagram

The coming deepfakes threat to businesses

The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes