Do you remember the tale of 25,000 lesbian lumberjacks living together in northern Sweden? Chako Paul City, as the story goes, was guarded with an iron resolve to prevent any men from entering the city. Those daring enough to try were beaten to death, while any woman returning to the city had to undergo a ceremonial wash before reentry.
This was, of course, utter nonsense.
This story was fabricated by a journalist from the newspaper Xinhuanet. To be clear, this was not intended as a satirical piece. This story took on a life of its own, rapidly spreading like wildfire leading leading to Swedish tourism websites crashing and causing internet service providers in China to grind to a halt due to the flood of traffic.
Why am I addressing this topic, more than a decade later? First, it serves as a humorous and absurd example of how rapidly stories can spread, despite how truthful they are. Second, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the technological leaps made since then. The Chako Paul City article was written in 2009. Now, in 2023, disinformation can spread and propagate with far greater potency and effectiveness. This can be attributed to the weaponization of social media, psychological operations employing troll farms, availability of technology that can create deepfakes, and lastly, we have “AI” using Large Language Models that can create convincing essays or social media posts with a simple prompt, which make fact-checking even more challenging or even impossible, depending on the speed and volume of generated content.
Since 2009, we’ve witnessed numerous instances of disinformation wreaking havoc: sowing distrust toward social welfare in Sweden, manipulating presidential elections, and inciting violence within populations. The COVID-19 vaccination hysteria is another prime example (sorry, too many examples to choose from).
The situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. Implementing new laws takes time, and big tech has largely evaded accountability. So, what can we as individuals do?
Avoid Spreading Misinformation: The most fundamental step is to refrain from sharing misinformation. If you’re in Sweden, consult the recommendations from the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency on how to verify sources and identify false information. If you notice someone close to you spreading misinformation, try to gently make them aware of their actions.
Rely on Trustworthy Sources: While platforms like Facebook and other social media are convenient for news consumption, they often subject you to opaque algorithms that aim to trigger you emotionally in order to keep you engaged. Use reliable sources for your news instead, and consume from the source directly.
Steer Clear of Toxic Social Media: Some social media platforms and specific groups within them can be hotbeds of toxicity and disinformation. Twitter / X, Facebookand even Youtube can have very little moderation, and can serve you more of the content you’re watching, effectively enclosing you in a bubble. The less you and your peers expose yourselves to platforms that serves you falsehoods, the less likely you are to become accustomed to them.
Structural changes are undoubtedly needed, but the best chance of achieving them lies in individual engagement with NGOs or groups working toward these causes. As we work towards these essential societal changes, it’s important to maintain a level-headed approach and exercise caution before sharing or acting upon random information from acquaintances or peers.
Or, as the adage often goes in academic circles, “Sources or die, muthaf—a!”
Sources on Chako Paul City: