The Infodemic and the 21st Century: Problems and Prospects

Brian N. Williams, PhD*

Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

University of Virginia

Contemporary Challenge Facing 21st Century Global Society

There are two pertinent questions that face our global society here in the early decades of the 21st Century. How to promote guarantees of freedom of expression in digital spaces? How can we minimize the stigmatizing speeches online that may result in violent actions against certain groups? Disinformation campaigns are real and their impact is being felt in the United States and abroad. As a result, individual and collective corrective actions are needed. But before this action can take place, an awareness and an understanding of the nuances of what is taking place is of paramount importance.

As the demographic makeup of the American public continues to change, some within the American mosaic are uncomfortable with this shift. Members of the public are divided on the impact of having a non-white majority. In my opinion, entities, both foreign and domestic, are taking advantage of this moment to intentionally misinform – or sharing false information without the intent to mislead – and disinform –  or sharing false information with the intent to mislead – the American public.  So what is the focal problem? In what context does this problem play out? Who is most impacted? What can we do about it? What should we do about it? Who are the “we” that I am referring to? Is it possible to be proactive, in a coactive and collaborative way to better understand and address the problem and its impact on public debate?

The Problem at the Intersection of Past and Present

Like a vehicle in need of a major tune-up, American democracy is stalling at the intersection of past and present. The apparitions and the historic harms of the past – like racist and discriminatory policies and practices grounded in the notions of white supremacy – continue to have a presence in the present. As a consequence, public trust in vital governmental institutions within the United States is down. Public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court and the criminal justice system continue to see the waning effects of public confidence. Joining in the decline of public confidence is the medical system, where now 44% of Americans in 2021 expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in this institution, down 7% points when compared to 2020. During this time of a global pandemic, a dystopian scenario has emerged. The problematic monster at the center of this nightmarish scenario is invisible, yet in plain sight. We can feel it’s presence and are experiencing its cunning ability and power. It has polarized the populace, hushed public debate, and has frustrated our efforts of forming a more perfect union. This period of the 21st Century is experiencing a pandemic within a pandemic – where the COVID pandemic is raging alongside the pandemic of systemic and institutionalized racism. Adding to this toxic combination is a focal problem that threatens the very existence of American democracy – an infodemic.

An infodemic represents an excessive amount of information about a problem that is unreliable, spreads rapidly, and frustrates efforts to find a solution. In the medical sense, this sharing of false and misleading information, within the physical and virtual environment, causes confusion and can result in actions and behaviors that are risky. Vaccine hesitancy is a real and present danger. Similarly in the American social sense, deceitful and disingenuous information around issues of race, class and other markers of marginalization are in infodemic proportions that is causing confusion and resulting in actions and behaviors that are dangerous and potentially deadly.

An assault on the truth is not new. American democracy can be defined as an ongoing battle to lessen the gap between what is true and what is false. Yet, its increased effectiveness today highlights the precarious nature of American society within the digital age. 

Today, there seems to be no common understanding of facts. Misinformation and disinformation algorithms are designed to spark emotions. These emotional posts spread rapidly and people believe the “facts” they want to believe in spite of the facts.  This reality has a disproportionate impact on certain populations.

At the Intersection: Contemporary Problems, Historical Victims and Institutional Wounds

At the current intersection of contemporary problems, those who have historically been stigmatized, marginalized and ostracized seem to bear the brunt of the medical and social infodemic. The COVID crisis, has brought racial and social inequity into the fore. Racial and ethnic groups are overly affected by this crisis – resulting in disproportionate instances of illness, intubation and death.

Withstanding these facts, within the US context, confidence in governmental and non-governmental institutions are literally and figuratively apparent across shades of black and white. Blacks Americans are less trusting of the doctors and hospitals than their white counterparts. There are historical reasons for this reality – like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and the legacy of the unethical treatment of Henrietta Lacks. But at the intersection, past and present-day convergence happens. And when one is not careful, accidents can and do occur. This has been the dilemma – the fear of present-day vaccines due to past historic harms perpetrated by the US public health system – faced by many within racial and ethnic communities. 

The impact of this infodemic isn’t relegated only to racial and ethnic minorities within and beyond the US. Trust in US institutions are politically polarized and perceived to be aligned with one side of the political ideological divide. As a result of this epidemic of misinformation, trust in social institutions has eroded. This negative effect has rippled beyond the confines of the US and its leaders, and is being experienced across the globe. A full frontal assault, supported by flanking attacks as well as those to the rear, are impacting governmental, business, media, and non-profit institutions and organizations. As a result, the global trust ecosystem is faltering and failing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

What can we do about this infodemic problem? What should we do about it? Who are the “we” that I am referring to? At the intersection, where do we go from here? To answer these series of questions, we – those who believe in democracy – must all acknowledge this problem. This requires the launching of an awareness campaign that is intentional, inclusive, equitable and meaningful. Corrective action is collective action, but this requires making individuals from across the spectrum aware of, understand and appreciate the nuances of that problem in order to acknowledge the reality of it.

This notion of we include institutions as well as individuals. The State should be one of the anchoring institutions whose role is to act without fear or favor – sine timore aut favore. Currently, the State has been more of a spectator during the decline and deterioration of public debate. It is crucial for the State to rise out the seats an enter into the fray as an active participant. By modeling such behavior, especially from within the confines of a political system and its resulting pressures, would encourage and embolden other social institutions and public organizations to do likewise.

Big Tech should be another anchoring institution. Like the cinematic character, Dr. Frankenstein, Big Tech has created and in many ways, sustained a monster that have harmed black people and other historically oppressed people. By utilizing the framework that increases transparency, evaluates product for discrimination, recruit, hire, develop and support a diverse workforce, among other things, offered by, the infodemic problem could be mitigated.

Understanding and addressing the infodemic problem will take time but can reveal what is hidden in plain sight. The infodemic problem – with its disinformation and misinformation apparatuses – will emerge as a visible target of opportunity at the collective level. This will allow for concerted efforts by individuals, communities, institutions, and organizations in support of democracies across the globe to address it. 

Voices from the Past and Pathways Toward the FutureVoltaire noted, “Those who can make you believe atrocities, can make you commit atrocities.” During this infodemic centered in a pandemic within a pandemic, leadership that is intentional, equitable, inclusive, formal and informal at the individual, communal,  institutional, governmental, and global level is needed. To paraphrase Dr. King, now is the time for leaders to take a position that may not be neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but it is right.Words of the past continue to echo in the present. They also provide prospects for pathways forward for our future. It is possible to be proactive in a co-active, deliberative, intentional, equitable, inclusive, collaborative, cross-sectorial and global way to address the infodemic.

*Brian N. Williams is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and is the Founder and Director of the Public Engagement in Governance Looking, Listening & Learning Laboratory (PEGLLLLab) within the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He is a scholar committed to community-engaged, action research who examines the interplay between race, policing and public governance.
Prof. Williams has published in leading journals in public administration, public management, community psychology, education, and police studies, is the author of Citizen Perspectives on Community Policing: A Case Study in Athens, GA, (SUNY Press) and is the co-author of Race, Policing & Public Governance: On the Other Side of Now, recently published by Cambridge University Press Element’s Series. His efforts are devoted to leveraging public engagement in reimagining and redesigning policies, practices, structures and systems that improve police-community relations and community wellbeing

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