The birth of alt-information

After five days of anxiously hitting CMD+R on the homepage of news websites, we finally know the name of the victor: Joseph R. Biden. Celebration in the streets is how I learned the news. I didn’t quite believe the result until both The New York Times and Fox News called it. I cried from a year worth of pressure being relieved all at once but the exuberant and uncompromising joy in Brooklyn also reminded me of how divided the country has become.

Large cities erupt with joy while other parts of the country remain silent. In which other democracy are factions so divided that they — physically — do not see or hear each other?

In 2016 the focus was on how misinformation influenced the election and for the past four years, social media platforms have significantly invested in combating it. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become much better at removing misleading content from their site or labeling it when fact checked. In June 2020 came a huge turning point, when they started aggressively labeling misleading posts from the President himself. Between protecting the speech of legitimate elected representatives and the defense of election integrity, Facebook and Twitter picked a side.

The 2020 election reveals a concern that runs deeper and is more concerning. Months of successful attempts by the President to sow doubt in the voting process have resulted in a situation where the democratic process itself has become suspicious for a large part of the electorate. Today, 7 out of 10 Republicans do not trust the election results. This distrust was built on a public stage, with no need for Russia or Iran to interfere. This is resulting in the emergence of a counter-narrative to Biden’s win and an alternative reality- which is likely to endure- where Donald J. Trump did not lose the election.

If the story of 2016 was marked by mis-information the story of 2020 is about alt-information. Misinformation looks at individual narratives and how they undermine trust or public safety. Alt-information looks at how multiple narratives connect to form an alternative reality or version of truth which no amount of content removal or content labeling can address. Alt-information is an entirely different perception of the facts rooted in personal history, geography, psychology and politics. While social media may be a compounding factor, non technological aspects of the problem should not be underestimated.

2020 is the tale of two Americas which have ceased to co-exist. Two sides that so detest each other that one is willing to create and nurture a myth where the other one is neither legitimate nor entitled to their opinions.

2020 could be the last year of cohabitation before full secession. More social media platforms are likely to emerge with their alt definition of what constitutes acceptable speech. More media outlets are likely to be formed with their alt definition of what constitutes reputable reporting. All of it based on a new reality where another candidate has won the election.

And this trend is likely to become global. With the German elections coming in 2021 followed by the French elections in 2022, Europe should stand ready for the rise of alt-information and for the threat it will cause to national unity.

The work ahead of us is more challenging than combating misinformation ever was but it is not hopeless. I for one dream of a day when the streets will be quiet after an election- because people with different opinions will have started to live in the same society again.

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