In a time of a global pandemic that has now cost the lives of just over 1.12 million people worldwide, accurate information is a must if we are to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sad as it is to say, but this is just not the world we live in anymore. According to The Fact Checker’s database, President Trump has made well over 20,000 false and misleading claims in his time behind the Resolute Desk, knowingly or otherwise.
Misinformation and disinformation can take many forms. From stories on websites or social media, manipulated images or videos, pictures, quotes, or skewed facts, either taken out of context or by deliberately fudging the numbers or words. This is a growing problem, not just online but in the halls of governments the world over. There were instances of “manipulation of public information in 12 countries in 2019 ahead of or during elections,” as discovered by Democracy Reporting International.
With an election looming on the horizon, it’s important to be well informed, even when some are actively trying to lead you down a treacherous path. So, what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? Firstly, neither should be confused with propaganda. Propaganda is “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.”
Misinformation is false and often harmful information, which is not shared with any deliberate malicious intent. Disinformation, on the other hand, is false and malicious information, which is shared with the express intention of causing harm. So who are the most likely culprits to spread either misinformation or disinformation? Well, in a word….. everyone.
Unfortunately, in the digital age, we are all potential spreaders of false or misleading information whether we are aware of it or not. Whenever we forward a message or retweet something, we run the risk of amplifying false or harmful information. Psychologists have found that we are more likely to share that information with those we are closest to, whether that be family, friends, work colleagues or acquaintances, especially if that information agrees with our preexisting belief system or opinions.
Most of us never knowingly or deliberately share and spread false and/or misleading information, that is usually the realm of states trying to influence events outside their borders, politicians and their supports trying to gain power by any means necessary, extremists groups trying to radicalize and recruit members (usually the young, naive and impressionable) or companies using unethical tactics to part you from your money.
Misinformation and disinformation are far from being a modern phenomenon. Rulers, politicians, and people, in general, have been manipulating the masses for centuries. The difference now is the pace, scale, and speed of that misinformation/disinformation and how it can cross borders and continents in an instant. Whether social media platforms wish to admit it or not, they are designed to share information and content quickly, regardless of its veracity or intention, just as long as it provokes strong emotion.
Most worrying in the digital age is that sometimes the information you are seeing on your newsfeed might not have even been put there by a flesh and blood person. A new tactic known as ‘computational propaganda’ is when a fake website or social media account uses an automated ‘bot’ (an autonomous program on the internet or another network that can interact with systems or users) to draw unsuspecting people to their accounts.
Other techniques involve misinformation/disinformation agents embedding themselves in genuine Facebook and WhatsApp groups with the sole purpose of inserting, then by proxy spreading, fake news stories to those associated with the unsuspecting reader. In some cases it even finds itself being picked up by legitimate mainstream news outlets.
Being able to control or shape narrative has always been a cornerstone in the acquisition and maintaining of power. As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, so too does the techniques used to spread false or misleading information as part of a nefarious political strategy, to sow doubt, confusion or discontent. Sadly, in this click culture we now live in, it’s unlikely to end any time soon. Why? Because there is money to be made.
Trust is at an all time low at the moment, whether it be trust in governments, institutions, media or other official sources. When trust in a country is low, studies have shown that their citizens tend to judge public information in a different manner, listening more to family, friends and the people in their community, whether that be physical on in a digital space.
Regaining the public’s trust is no mean feat. Organizations, governmental or otherwise, need to develop a better understanding of how modern digital information works and create policies to combat those using it for political, social or financial gain. They also need to champion more independent journalism and the use of real time fact checkers. Recently, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have taken baby steps to call out information that is inaccurate, misleading or just plain false.
I know you must be thinking to yourself, ‘This is all well and good but what can I do about it?’. The United Nations are currently investing in campaigns to encourage people to stop and think before spreading viral content. However, you don’t need the U.N. to help you think more critically when surfing online. Check the sources of the information yourself, try and understand the motivation behind the sharing of this information, who and what gains from it.
Misinformation and disinformation are not going anywhere, any time soon, but what we can do is, not shame individuals who share misinformation/disinformation but instead try and understand why they shared it and educate people more on the damage that can be caused. Over the last few decades, our digital society has exploded, so let’s try more to reach for the stars rather than comb through the rubble to find the last remnants of a dying truth.