I cannot make sense of what is happening.

I say this as a scholar of polluted information, someone who talks and thinks about political toxicity more than I do anything else in my life. I also say this as someone who, along with everyone else in my field, has watched the dangers gather and anxieties build for years. In my case, just as Covid-19 was picking up steam overseas, I found myself needing to lie on the floor of my office, covered in bags of rice, as I tried to bring down my blood pressure enough to get through my next media literacy lecture. Just say no to nihilism, I’d tell my students and myself.

And then the pandemic hit the US, and we all know what happened next.

Things were bad before. But as our ongoing public health crisis has collided with our ongoing civil rights crisis, both set against the backdrop of our ongoing election integrity crisis, we’re left with an information landscape that’s mostly land mines. From the right-wing hijacking of scientific facts to the transformation of community health best practices into flashpoints for the culture wars to the distrust and disinformation swirling around the police brutality protests, everything has become a weapon—or at least, everything has the potential to become weaponized.


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Unsurprisingly, I’ve had lots of people, from reporters to colleagues to friends, reach out to ask, what now? How should we respond to this conspiracy theory? Should we be amplifying that hoax? What should we say about white nationalists posing as antifa online, or about the president’s greenlighting of state violence so he can stand in front of an empty church? My job is to have an answer. Instead, I want to scream—I don’t know, stop asking me!—and fling myself behind my couch to sob.

I’m tired. We’re all tired. Even those of us who are prepared for this, aren’t prepared for this. But that doesn’t mean that nihilism is suddenly an option. The stakes were always high. Now they’re in the stratosphere. Covid-19, combined with systemic racism (itself made manifest through Covid-19), has endangered the health and safety of millions of people. But the potential for damage goes much further than that. The soul of the nation is at risk. Our ability to come back from any of this is at risk. Given all those risks, we have even more reason, and an even greater responsibility, to navigate our networks as carefully as we can. To think about what we amplify and why.

We do this by remembering that mis- and disinformation isn’t just about information. It’s about the harm information can cause, both emotionally and physically. These harms are not equally distributed. People from marginalized communities are exposed to far more harms, far more often, than people who enjoy the default protections of being cis, white, and hetero. Minimizing the harms of polluted information is a social justice issue. It’s also the only way we all can keep from drowning.

So, when considering whether to amplify information—through our tweets or comments or think pieces—the first order of business is to reflect on how harmful the information might be; and, beyond that, to reflect on what harms might result from our sharing. A basic question to ask is whether those harms threaten the bodily autonomy, personal safety, or emotional well-being of people outside the group in which the harmful content was created, or where it first circulated. If the harms don’t extend beyond that group, it may still be necessary to inform the proper authorities (from law enforcement to somebody’s parents). Ethical due diligence is important. But even then, it’s probably better not to react with fireworks; as I’ve discussed before, publicity is not a default public service. If, on the other hand, the content does threaten those outside the specific group where it originated, then a more far-reaching response may be warranted or even necessary.