I could have chosen any number of words or phrases for my Word of the Year for 2020.
As a teacher, my first thought was “hybrid.” Since the beginning of this school year, every day has been structured within a “hybrid schedule” – half of my students show up in my classroom while the other half appear simultaneously on a computer screen. Voilà: “hybrid.”
Another commonly heard word in schools, especially among coaches, has been “fluid.” This year’s sports schedule, for instance, has remained “fluid.” Indeed, “fluid” has been the byword for football coaches in a year in which our season has been scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled for the spring, depending on the status of COVID at the given time.
These are but two of many terms now common in a teacher’s vocabulary. Among the others are “social/emotional,” “contact tracing,” “quarantine,” “mask up,” and all things “Google” – “Google Classroom,” “Google Meet,” “Google Doc,” “Google Forms.” It’s enough to make me scream, “Great Googly Moogly!”
Not surprisingly, other logophiles have also gone the pandemic route in choosing their words of the year. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, was quite direct in opting for “pandemic,” as was dictionary.com. The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, could not settle on just one word or phrase, so it chose several: “Black Lives Matter,” “blursday,” “lockdown,” “social distancing,” “systemic racism,” and – of course – “coronavirus.”
But for me, a teacher of media literacy and journalism, I feel it’s my duty to crown “misinformation” and “disinformation” as my dual Words of the Year. Quite simply, no words encapsulate 2020’s utter chaos more than these two.
First, a quick distinction: Misinformation is basically any erroneous statement made regardless of intention, while disinformation entails false assertions spread with the specific aim of misleading. In other words, people share misinformation often unaware that it is not true. Others – notably, those in positions of power – circulate disinformation as a form of propaganda.
While the phenomenon has been around for some time, 2020 was the year in which many of our leading figures – the occupant the Oval Office serving as chief culprit – deployed disinformation excessively and shamelessly. Consequently, millions of Americans shared bogus claims, particularly on social media.
Matt DeRienzo, editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity and former vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, summed up the situation in a recent column for Editor & Publisher:
“We’ve got QAnon supporters who believe that a Satanic cult involved in child sex trafficking controls the government, and roughly a quarter of voters believing aspects of their bonkers, made-up lies. We have a sitting U.S. president who refused to denounce their support during his re-election campaign, who has lied publicly more than 20,000 times while in office, urges the American public not to trust news media of almost any kind, and who has suggested that journalists be ‘locked up’.”
That’s just scratching the surface. Suffice to say, the nonsense was ubiquitous. Sadly, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“Even before he was president, Trump was alleging election fraud without producing evidence,” explains Kayleigh Rogers in an article for FiveThirtyEight. “During his 2016 campaign he claimed the election was ‘rigged’ in favor of Clinton, predicted widespread voter fraud and announced he would accept the results of the election only if he won. Over the past year, he has reiterated many of the same baseless assertions, seizing in particular on mail-in voting, which he maintained (again without evidence) would lead to fraud.”
In other words, Americans were “primed” to fall for the lies and deception.
“Priming is where an external source, a sender of information, is trying to prime people to think a certain way,” according to Mark Whitmore, a professor at Kent State University who has studied misinformation and cognitive bias. “One of the ways in which priming occurs is through partisanship. When that happens, people have a greater tendency to think along the lines of whatever party they feel they belong to.”
No surprise, then, that a YouGov/Economist poll conducted among registered voters between Nov. 8 and 11 found that 82 percent of Republicans “did not believe that Joe Biden had legitimately won the presidential election.”
The situation is not likely to improve, unfortunately. As the pandemic continues to spread this winter and vaccines become increasingly available, the disinformation will only ramp up.
“Part of the trouble is that there is limited data about the coronavirus vaccines,” writes Alexandra S. Levine of Politico, “making some narratives harder to refute than claims about vaccines that have been around for years — such as that childhood shots cause autism, which repeated studies over years have proved to be untrue.”
“Another [problem] is that the outbreak arrived at a time when enormous communities distrustful of government have been growing online,” adds Levine. “Taken together, the scientific unknowns and political anxiety have mixed to produce a complex new breed of vaccine opponent.”
Sounds like we shouldn’t be surprised if “misinformation” and “disinformation” repeat as Words of the Year in 2021 – not a reassuring thought, especially as we conclude a year so unprecedented, so unpredictable, so downright hellacious, it has proved difficult to sum up with just one word.
Then again, perhaps 2020 has taught us about the power of resilience, making “comeback” and “success” the watchwords for 2021. I certainly remain open to that possibility.