Ok Generation: Disinformation in a Viral Age

Lauren Post
5 min readMar 19, 2020


If you’re my age, a millennial, it feels easier than ever to mock Gen X and Baby Boomers for falling for what is seemingly obvious propaganda. Many of us have gotten a big laugh out of accounts such as No Context Boomer, or the myriad of Facebook pages peddling disinformation. At first glance, it looks as though millennials have a point — a Princeton and NYU study found that people over 65 were 7 times more likely to share “fake news” than all other adults. However, that doesn’t mean the problem is confined to older folks.

While many boomers struggle with the new media landscape, younger people often don’t know the larger context for world events and feel like they don’t have the skills necessary to parse fact from fiction. For example, a 2019 Stanford study revealed high school students struggled to fact check or evaluate evidence presented to them.

Propaganda is evolving. The way we consume media has changed, but we have not caught up in learning how to process and think critically about the information we are bombarded with every day. As such, Americans of all ages are not prepared for the avalanche of disinformation headed our way.

It seems as though the lessons of 2016 about disinformation and propaganda across the political spectrum have been pushed into the corners of America’s collective imagination. Every national security agency anticipates disinformation campaigns from Russia and other foreign countries to pervade the 2020 election to an even greater degree than in 2016. In late 2017, reports emerged that as many as 126 million Americans viewed Russian propaganda ads meant to discourage voting, misinform, or enrage — depending on your demographic. Elections are just the tip of the iceberg. Americans young and old are increasingly targeted with misleading content about many different issues, and all of us must work harder to form our opinions based on facts.

Purely “fake news” is a rare phenomenon. Slicker and more polished propaganda has emerged, blending reality with highly stylized untruths. Purveyors of misinformation target their audiences with precision and highlight issues they feel will be most inflammatory — foreign policy, racial issues, and misogyny are some of the easiest subjects to exploit. The goals include profit, dividing people and spreading hate, and getting voters to distrust institutions and disengage entirely from civic life. In the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak, a variety of baseless rumors have sparked both panic and a false sense of security in some communities.

One type of disinformation made for the digital era is editing clips out of context and pushing them out on social media as if they are complete sound bites. Project Veritas is known for using this technique to great success in stirring up controversy against Google, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations seen as ideological opponents of the right.

Progressive outlets like NowThis, Soapbox,In the Now, and AJ+ engage in similar tactics. Oriented towards a younger audience, their videos routinely go viral. However, as is often the case with viral videos, they’re often laden with factual errors, or clearly biased viewpoints.

Facebook has actually suspended SoapBox — a social media page affiliated with the Russian Government’s RT media network — once before in an effort to promote transparency in funding. RT and its offshoots tend to depict extreme positions on American politics and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy views as mainstream. SoapBox and other government-funded social media operations like Qatar’s AJ+ regularly spread misinformation about global issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian Civil War, and the collapse of Venezuela. The goal is typically to undermine the U.S. and prop up dictators like Maduro and Assad, under the guise of promoting a “progressive” foreign policy agenda.

The problem with NowThis, which describes itself as a, “progressive, social-media focused, youth-oriented news organization,” is slightly different. While it is funded privately by Americans, it has a strong editorial viewpoint and no internal verification mechanisms. In an interview with Columbia Review of Journalism, NowThis vice president of social media Ashish Patel said “Speed is part of the brand…It’s what we sell. So, our verification is hyperfast, using third-party verifiers…if the {New York] Times is reporting something, it’s already verified.” It’s perfectly normal for news outlets to have perspectives — all major outlets do. However, the lack of internal fact-checking combined with political bias leads to the spread of blatantly false claims, such as a NowThis video where an interviewee said that Anne Frank did not die in a concentration camp. All of this contributes to a larger ecosystem wherein once something is established as “ fact” it is hard to disabuse its audience of anything contrary to the underlying values of their beliefs.

It’s not just easily digestible viral news clips that create an ecosystem of disinformation and misinformation. The problem extends to well produced long form “journalism”. Government funded media networks such as Russia’s RT, Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Venezuela’s Telesur, and Turkey’s TRT use news segments and documentaries to make propaganda seem like facts backed up by research.

For example, Abby Martin, a “journalist” who has worked with RT and Telesur, gained a following by using such tactics. She was so prolific that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence named her show as a source of Russian propaganda in the 2016 elections. A notorious conspiracy theorist, Martin has claimed that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad didn’t drop chemical bombs on Syrians and that America did 9/11. Unsurprisingly, she also spreads vicious, dehumanizing hatred against Israel, claiming that, “it’s a racist society where genocidal bloodlust is the norm.”

Now Martin’s hate is finding a home on college campuses, where she has been promoting her new “documentary”, Gaza Fights for Freedom. The film falsely portrays the near weekly riots at the Gaza border with Israel as purely peaceful protests, while literally promoting propaganda from Hamas — a recognized terrorist organization. Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar is presented at face value, as he denies accusations of terrorism and violence. There is no mention of his long record of promoting genocidal hatred against Jews. Martin’s documentary also falsely depicts Israel as trying to swallow up the entire Middle East, echoing an antisemitic conspiracy theory promoted by Osama Bin Laden and others. Nevertheless, this propaganda works because it is well produced and flirts just enough with the truth to sound believable, especially to young people who are less informed.

Clearly, the old ways of learning and processing information are no longer sufficient, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Deepening political polarization only adds to this challenging environment. Conservatives and liberals are good at spotting fake or misleading news from outlets that don’t conform to their ideological worldview, but do poorly when it comes to fact checking outlets they generally agree with.

Luckily, there are many good organizations dedicated to helping people think critically about the news. The Center for Media Literacy has a litany of excellent resources for teaching media consumption skills, and many lesson plans for teachers are popping up to help teach students how to evaluate information. We can all do better as well, by following more balanced and established reporting outlets, learning to recognize disinformation when we see it, and curating our social media experiences to see a diversity of voices. Our democracy depends on learning these skills, after all.