Stopping Online Vitriol at the Roots: With the election upon us, we’re awash in misleading and angry information. Here’s what we can do.

Some useful pointers, not just applicable to the USA post-election:

America, it’s one day before a pivotal election, and we’re awash in a lot of garbage information and online vitriol. It comes from strangers on the internet, scammers in our text messagesdisreputable news organizations and even our friends and family.

Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and an author on polluted information, says that all of this is making our brains go haywire.

With the U.S. election ginning up misleading information and the nonstop political discussions online wearing many of us out, I spoke to her about how we can individually and collectively fight back. Here are edited excerpts from our discussion:

You’ve written that angry conversations online and misleading information essentially short circuits our brains. How?

When our brains are overloaded, and we’re confronted constantly with upsetting or confusing information, it sends us into a state in which we’re less capable of processing information. We say things we probably shouldn’tPeople get retweet happy. It’s not productive, even when people have good intentions and think they’re helping.

How do we stop that process?

I’ve been researching how mindfulness meditation processes can help us navigate this information hellscape. When you see or read something that triggers that emotional reaction, take a moment to breathe and try to establish some emotional space. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say the critical thing you’re thinking, but you should first reflect on the most constructive thing to do next.

But we don’t tend to think that we’re the ones acting irresponsibly or irrationally. We think the people who disagree with us are irrational and irresponsible.

Most people think if they’re not setting out to do damage or don’t have hate in their hearts, then they don’t have to consider what they do. But even if we aren’t vicious ourselves, we’re still fundamentally a part of what information spreads and how.

We all affect the ecology around us. Bad actors like high-profile influencers can scar the land, but everyone else does, too. The more information pollution there is in the landscape, the less functional our democracy is. If you feel that everything is terrible and everyone lies, then people don’t want to engage in civic discourse.

This imposes a lot of personal responsibility on a problem that is much bigger than us as individuals.

Yes, individual solutions are not enough. We all can make better choices, but that means nothing if we’re not also thinking about structural, systemic reasons that we’re forced to confront bad information in the first place.

What are those structural forces? What can be done to make the information environment better at the structural level?

For us to understand how bad information travels we have to think about all the forces that contributed to it — decisions made by the internet platforms, broader capitalist forces, local and national influences. And it includes you. All of them feed into each other.

Part of the problem is that people haven’t understood how information works or recommendation algorithms of social media companies that influence why we see what we do online. If people understand, they can imagine a different world and they can fight to change the system.

I’m tempted to unplug the internet and go live in a cave. Should I?

We need to find a way to balance between evacuating from the hurricane and running toward the hurricane. If we only evacuate, we’re not doing our part as citizens, and we force people on the informational front lines to bear that burden. If we only run toward the storm, we’ll burn out.