An period of pretend information? – Newspaper
The danger that misleading or inaccurate information poses to society has been grimly pointed out during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the deadly threat posed by the virus, the response of many people around the world has often been shaped by misinformation injected through digital platforms. This has led them either to trivialize the disease or to resort to “cures” with no scientific basis, and only because they were spread on social news as “cures”. The hesitation of the vaccine in many parts of the world has also been largely driven by rumors and conspiracy theories.
This prompted the World Health Organization, at the beginning of the pandemic, to coin the term “infodemic” to refer to the flood of information and the exponential dissemination of fabricated content. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom stated, “We are not only fighting the virus, but the trolls and conspiracy theorists who are promoting misinformation and undermining the response to the outbreak.” Senior UN officials have repeatedly warned of the grave social and health consequences of spreading misinformation and stressed the need to immunize the public against false news.
While the global health crisis has seen a stream of false stories, the reality is that there is false news all around us today. This poses new challenges for social stability in the so-called post-truth era, a term that emerged a few years ago. It refers to a phenomenon that is not itself new and is broadly described as a phenomenon in which facts are discarded and criteria for establishing the truth are challenged. Instead, there is a prevalence of views that only match people’s personal preferences or emotions.
Read: Living in the age of “false news”
Why is fake news so common today? Is it really that new? What explains its spread now? How harmful are the effects of a post-facts environment?
Regulating technology is one thing, but it’s rude human behavior that needs to change.
Fake news isn’t new, of course. There have always been inventions and falsehoods. So make an effort to manipulate the truth. Fact fudging heralds propaganda that has long been used to manipulate opinion for political ends. Deceptive narrative propaganda was usually used by states or political leaders and was directed at enemies abroad or at home. Disinformation has been used against adversaries by countries throughout history. What sets fake news apart from propaganda is that individuals and non-state actors are now using it with devotion in the digital age. This makes it unprecedentedly ubiquitous.
Because of its more pronounced nature, false news in its current form is a more recent phenomenon. It has been widely stated that following the Brexit vote and President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, debates and concerns arose about the political and ethical implications of these events, where it is widely believed that misinformation played a role in influencing voters to have. What was then called post-factual politics has been described as deliberately spread lies that mislead the debate and mislead people.
What explains the ubiquity of fake news today? There is general agreement that this has a lot to do with the spread of information channels and the expansion of social media in the digital age. Communication technology dominates our lives today like never before. Online platforms are widely recognized as the main tools for spreading misinformation. Fake news spreads easily due to the magnifying power of social media and goes viral in this mostly unregulated environment. The anonymity on social media platforms gives the consolation to false story providers and trolls that they will not be held responsible for the lies or hate messages they spread. Anyone can post fake news on social media without fear of retaliation.
Facebook and Twitter have been criticized worldwide for this reason. Despite the fierce controversy surrounding their role, social media giants who wield immense power have yet to put in place effective self-regulation. A Unesco report points out that the measures taken are “incomplete” at best. As Timothy Garton Ash once wrote in The Guardian, these digital platforms have become “unprecedentedly powerful reinforcers of lies” and “the profit motive drives them to the dark side by algorithmic maximization of the currency of attention”. In fact, their business model prevents them from conducting real reviews of divisive content and “digital forest fires”.
The spread of fake news has also been linked to the rise of populist leaders who do not feel compelled to knowingly sell fact-free narratives. Trump perfected the politics of lies. He deliberately used “alternative facts” and manipulated opinion by advocating conspiracy theories and fabricating threats to advance his political career. But he wasn’t alone. Demagogues and their supporters around the world have used similar means to political gain, exploiting people’s vulnerability by conveying falsehoods.
A plausible link was also made between the spread of fake news and political polarization. This is because in a polarized society and politics, people believe what their partisan side transmits or what is in line with their own views. They only listen to the news media or follow online sites that reflect their own prejudices. Living in information or digital “bubbles” makes you vulnerable to whatever is spread by your chosen information channel, true or false.
The harmful effects of the fake news phenomenon are many. An environment in which the truth is blurred can have far-reaching consequences – misleading people, damaging social cohesion by undermining the sense of common interest, weakening politics, undermining civic obligations and even sowing public disorder.
As President Barack Obama once said, “Wrong news is a threat to democracy.” When the political debate is belittled by falsehoods and deprived of reason, democracy is jeopardized. By playing out and reinforcing the polarization, narratives based on falsehoods that demonize the “other” corrode the sense of community and are deeply divisive. Trust in public institutions also declines as misleading information often creates doubt and cynicism. There is no need to elaborate on the harmful effects of hate speech, harassment, online extremism and lying against minorities.
How these dangers can be reduced is an imposing challenge of our time. Solutions on offer range from tighter online regulation, to increased surveillance and surveillance by social media companies, to removing toxic content and ending user anonymity. How effective they can be remains to be seen. Regulating technology is one thing, but it’s rude human behavior that really needs to change.
The author is a former ambassador to the US, UK and the United Nations.
Posted in Dawn on April 5, 2021