What Is “Disinformation”?

Fact: 5G mobile networks do not spread Covid-19 – graphic by WHO-Openaccess, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 igo

Is the Breakdown of Trust Damaging Our Democracy?

The government has been pushing through a host of undemocratic pieces of legislation, with little pushback. We seem to be sleepwalking towards a more authoritarian, far-right, proto-fascist state. Is it because the electorate is constantly being distracted, or bombarded with disinformation? 

The Dead Cat

In an article by the International Journal of the Press, Ivor Gaber and Caroline Fisher coined the term Strategic Lying’. This is a technique honed during the Brexit campaign and the 2019 election campaign, whereby a politician tells a deliberate lie. It is done with the purpose of shifting the news agenda onto his or her preferred territory. It’s known as the ‘dead cat’, most particularly associated with Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby.

Also known as the “master of the dark political arts”, Crosby was paid £140 000 for four months’ work on running Boris Johnson’s successful 2008 London mayoral election campaign. He’s good at what he does.

The purpose of a ‘dead cat’ is to distract from more serious crises – say NHS workers dying in their hundreds because they didn’t have the appropriate PPE; or care homes being forced to take in patients who were untested for Covid; or thousands dying prematurely – because the government wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously. Remember that Johnson missed five Cobra meetings.

How easy it is to move the conversation on when Johnson does something weird, like reveal that he made buses out of cardboard, or he makes speeches waving a kipper about. What about mentions of Peppa Pig, Kermit the frog, and most recently, the Lion King? Is he losing his mind? Perhaps, but such odd behaviour certainly moves the news along.

Whom Do You Trust?

Where do you get your information from? Do you trust the impartiality of BBC news? Is Channel 4 too ‘woke’? Do you read the Mail, or the Guardian

Many engage with Twitter. Those looking for some hard-hitting content that denigrates different races and religions and encourages violence, prefer American social media platform, Parler. This was previously associated with Donald Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, and far-right extremists. 

But many millions get their information from Facebook, often with little understanding of how the platform works. For instance, how many know that Facebook’s algorithms allow it to share articles to all of a user’s followers? If you read an article that contains disinformation, it could be shared with your followers, further disseminating information that is untrue. 

Is It Disinformation Or Misinformation?

In a recent podcast by the British Psychological Society, Tom Buchanan, professor of psychology at the University of Westminster, explained that ‘Disinformation’ is material that is shared in the knowledge that it’s untrue, for political or financial gain. Whereas ‘Misinformation’ is shared in the belief that it’s true. So some are disseminating disinformation for political gain, while others (ie Facebook users reading such articles) are unwittingly spreading misinformation.

In ‘Think with Pinker’, cognitive psychologist Professor Stephen Pinker reminds us that, as we are all now living in an era of ‘fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and post-truth rhetoric’. Both are problematic because our brains work on calculating the ‘probability’ of various scenarios. When we’re overwhelmed with information that a scenario is more, or less, likely to happen, the calculation process can be corrupted, and affect our decision-making, especially if that scenario could impact our daily lives.

Before the EU referendum I had a strong feeling that  ‘Leavers’ were being misinformed about the EU, probably via Facebook. The Vote Leave campaign spent £2.7 million on Facebook ads (using data from Cambridge Analytica as to which Facebook users to target) with ‘Let’s give the NHS the £350 million that we hand over to the EU every week’, and ‘Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are joining the EU’. They may have been convincing statements, but in fact both ads were ‘Disinformation’, since neither were/are true. Sharing those ads with like-minded followers, however, was ‘misinformation’.

Disinformation is Dangerous

Why are some people still vaccine hesitant? Many cite ‘evidence’ posted on Facebook reporting the risk of infertility, or that Bill Gates is implanting us with G5 microchips. It’s not ‘information’ that everyone sees (only those who might be susceptible). But many seeing this targeted disinformation are inadvertently sharing it with people they know, and trust.

The music platform, Spotify, recently came under fire as musicians, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, and comedian Stewart Lee, removed their content from the Spotify site. They did so in protest at the platform continuing to host a podcast called the Joe Rogan Experience. One episodes contained an interview with Dr Robert Malone, a virologist. His promotion of Covid-19 misinformation had resulted in Malone being banned from Twitter. 

Most news outlets are under legal pressure to correct or take down disinformation. The same doesn’t apply to sites such as Facebook, or recently, Spotify, so the inaccurate stuff keeps rolling around. In this instance, Rogan made a video to acknowledge that keeping that interview online may have been a mistake.

However he also acknowledges that ‘truth’ is tricky and a moveable feast. His wish to caveat ‘fake news’ is a welcome one, but not common. The BBC recently reported that Covid-deniers are now latching on to climate change denial. 

Buchanan found that the sharing of misinformation tended to be associated with feelings of powerlessness and loss of control over one’s life. This is something that is doubtless going to become more of a problem as both become a reality for many more, post-Brexit. 

Who Benefits From Disinformation?

The most shocking example of disinformation was the Prime Minister of the UK accusing the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, of having “spent most of his time [as Director of Public Prosecutions] prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”. This was a lie, but Johnson doubled down, repeated it, had a few of his ministers say that ‘He [Johnson] always tells the truth’, and eventually Johnson clarified his muddled thinking.

But he also successfully managed to move the conversation on from the damning Sue Gray report, and the current investigation by the Metropolitan Police into parties at No. 10 Downing Street that were held during lockdown. Not to mention the bills that are going currently through Parliament to stymy democracy further. So, job done. 

How much longer he’ll be able to continue this is a matter of debate, but what’s sure in my mind is that Corbyn would have been toast two years ago. That’s less of a comment on my willingness to vote in Corbyn, as a comment on our media, and those who have a vested interest in keeping the Tories, even this bunch, in power.

Breaking the Rules Before Your Eyes

Within the House of Commons there is something called ‘Parliamentary Privilege’, which means that MPs are granted certain immunities. Every MP, however, is expected to abide by the ‘Nolan Principles’ of ‘Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership’. Unfortunately, if an MP, or even the PM, decides to ignore such noble Nolan principles, there is no consequence. 

The current Speaker of the House reminds us that he has no power to make anyone retract a lie. It’s expected, but nothing happens if you don’t. Ironically, had Keir Starmer himself called Johnson out as a ‘liar’, that would be against Parliamentary rules, and Starmer could have been thrown out of the chamber. Fortunately Starmer knows, and abides by, the rules, unlike many of the members (I use the word advisedly) opposite.

The End of Democracy

To see where the UK might be heading, take a look at the US, where the election of Donald Trump similarly divided the country. Like Johnson, Trump’s ‘post-truth’ politics depended on his charisma being prized over any experience, in politics, or truth-telling. His gaffes were legendary, as was accusing detractors of ‘fake news’. Johnson responds with a ruffle of his unruly hair, and cries of ‘piffle’ or ‘waffle’, but the playbook is frighteningly similar: “deny, dismiss, deflect.”

And as people struggle to understand what is happening, or whom to trust, the machine trundles on, further debasing our values and weakening our offices of state.

Perhaps, by the time we do wake up, it could be too late.