Middlesex County might seem like the last place that an unfounded conspiracy theory could thrive. Home to world-class universities with mottos like Veritas and mens et manus and brilliant researchers who brought us the Human Genome Project and mRNA vaccines, it’s one geographic region that you might reasonably expect to be immune to the scourge of misinformation that plagues our democracy and imperils public health.
But alas, even here, a lie can travel halfway around the county while the truth is still putting on its shoes, to paraphrase an old adage. And respect for rigorous arbiters of truth — whether judges weighing evidence in a courtroom or journalists covering current events — is fragile.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said that her office has encountered many elderly people in the county falling prey to “unusual theories” about COVID-19, losing their money to online scammers selling unproven medications and protective gear. To Ryan, this is not only a misfortune that befalls vulnerable pocketbooks, but a threat to public safety and a challenge for law enforcement. “People are taking in misinformation around the country and actually committing real crimes,” she said, citing the Michigan man who killed his wife and dog in September, whose daughter said his rage was fueled by QAnon conspiracies. Mistrust in authorities, which Ryan sees as an extension of online misinformation and the doubt it sows, is also striking closer to home.
In October, a rumor circulated on Twitter that Cambridge City Hospital authorities had bribed a man to get permission to list the cause of death for his father as COVID. It was a local variation of an online right-wing conspiracy theory that purports that the death toll from COVID has been artificially inflated by health officials, a pernicious lie that paints a picture of a less deadly disease than COVID has been, undermines efforts to get people vaccinated, and erodes trust in the doctors and nurses treating patients at death’s door. A local news outlet, Cambridge Day, investigated the accusation and established that no such thing had happened here; plus, the conspiratorial narrative relied on a patently false premise that families give permission for listing a cause of death. (In Massachusetts, cause of death is determined by a doctor or medical examiner, and relatives have no legal right to determine it.)
The perception that misinformation is a problem happening somewhere out there in rural America — where, for instance, COVID vaccine uptake was lower and news deserts persist — may blind us to the fact that any of us can be vulnerable to conspiracy theories or unfounded rumors. And it might even be keeping us from seeing the ways we could help fight false ideas at the local level, right here in our backyards. While many of the most dangerous lies today originate and propagate online, rapidly proliferated by social media networks and WhatsApp groups, communities are not powerless to combat them. And when a community is tightly knit and has people motivated to dig deeper and disprove a false claim, the odds of success might improve.
In this election year, for instance, Maine has had two candidates spread lies about voter fraud who have later been compelled to at least partially walk back their statements — not, however, before considerable damage was done. In the spring, former Republican governor Paul LePage, who on Tuesday lost his comeback bid, had claimed that several large municipalities (all but one of which happen to be cities where he lost the vote in 2010 and 2014) had weaker election oversight than small towns, an unfounded statement that Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, whose office oversees the state’s elections, dispelled. When pressed by a reporter weeks later, LePage admitted that Maine’s elections would be difficult to rig.
More recently, Ed Thelander, the Republican candidate for Maine’s First Congressional District who lost to incumbent Chellie Pingree on Tuesday, amplified a false rumor that people were casting illegal votes under the names of prep school students who had left Maine more than a decade ago. (Bellows’s office confirms that the state regularly updates and purges its rolls of inactive voters, as well as ensures that ballot counts align with the number of registered voters.) Thelander retreated from the claim when asked for evidence by the Portland Press Herald. (He did the same with respect to an outlandish false rumor he had spread that schools were putting litter boxes in their restrooms for students who believe they are cats.)
Admitting — once caught — that you said something unsubstantiated is a low bar. And it’s a far cry from the ideal: never spreading a falsehood in the first place. But it’s become exceedingly rare in American politics for public figures to correct the record when called out for the lack of evidence for their claims about the election and beyond. More often, they double down on their lies or conspiracy theories. (While some people knowingly spread lies in bad faith for political or financial gain — what’s known as “disinformation” — others unwittingly spread false information believing it’s true, still contributing to the misinformation malaise despite good intentions.)
Maine’s recent success in getting politicians to walk back false rumors might be partially explained by its bipartisan redistricting process that has created purple districts, requiring candidates of both parties to not completely alienate voters from the other side. But Bellows also believes it’s because “Maine is like one large small town,” pointing to the close relationships that her office has with operatives of both political parties and the fact that more residents know people who work in the press or in securing local elections than in larger states. “When a moose comes to one of our largest municipalities, that makes the news,” she added. “If there were anything controversial happening in one of our polling places or elections, it would make the news. There’s not enough noise in the state for news not to penetrate; that helps maintain a shared understanding of what actually happened.”
While misinformation is a global problem implicating Russian bots, public figures like Kyrie Irving and Elon Musk, and massive technology platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, what’s happened in Maine suggests that at least part of the solution might lie at the scale of communities, where a lie can be counteracted by trusted people establishing the truth on the ground for their fellow community members.
In Middlesex County, Ryan has taken up the challenge of combatting online lies by focusing on what she calls “the demand side” — the ability of residents and particularly young people to scrutinize what they read online and view with skepticism unfounded claims. She has launched a pilot program called the Digital Citizenship Academy, which is training volunteer prosecutors in the county to deliver free courses to high school students to help them discern fact from fiction online.
On a recent autumn morning, 22 prosecutors gathered at Ryan’s office in Woburn to take part in a training session led by Joel Breakstone, a Stanford researcher who has developed a curriculum being used by educators around the country to teach young people how to spot misinformation and lies online. It’s a myth that young people are better at finding credible information online just because they are savvy with digital devices, said Breakstone. A study that he and his colleagues conducted of more than 3,000 high school students around the country found that the majority of teens struggle to discern between Internet content that is credible and not credible.
Highly educated people aren’t any better, Breakstone added. He has found that professors from elite colleges and universities don’t do well at evaluating misleading sources of information, often reading too closely — and therefore absorbing bad information — instead of first determining whether a source is fair and accurate in its motivations and moving on from misleading sites quickly.
Professional fact-checkers, by contrast, will read “laterally” — looking up the funders behind a particular “news” site and what interests they may have in publishing certain content before giving it their attention. “On the Internet, the best way to understand a site is to leave it,” Breakstone told the prosecutors, in order to consult other sources and discover more about the funders or interest groups behind a website and their methods for establishing facts. He also noted that veritable news sites publish “sponsored content” believing that readers will understand it to be quasi-advertising as opposed to straight reporting of facts, but that in practice that distinction is lost on many readers. (The Globe publishes sponsored content that it clearly marks as such; whether readers view it as motivated by the companies funding it as advertising, or whether they mistake it to be as credible as content produced by journalists, is an open question.)
In a world in which public relations firms, lobbyists, and conspiracy theorists have gotten adept at creating sites and “articles” that imitate journalistic and scientific sources, lie detection is an incremental way of addressing a monumental problem. A tidal wave of lies is coming at us all the time, and asking people to become better consumers of that information seems both essential but also a bit like asking the Little Dutch Boy to stick his finger in the dike as it crumbles under the crush of water.
But Ryan, for her part, is determined to do something and to start somewhere. “It’s our hope to eventually scale this out with seniors and with middle school kids,” she said. As a precedent, she points to a previous pilot her office ran with licensed beauticians to get them to recognize the signs of domestic violence, and says it has since scaled to 3,000 beauticians across the Commonwealth.
She sees this new mission as inextricably linked with upholding the rule of law: People need a common grounding in reality to accept the outcomes of trials and to serve as jurors who fairly weigh evidence. “If we lose the ability to accept objective facts,” she said, “it eats away at our democracy.”
That’s reason enough to at least give such efforts a shot.
Bina Venkataraman is an editor-at-large for Globe Opinion.