By Pramod K Nayar
For a few hours, the global audience did not know what was going on. Literally. With Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram crashing, people discovered a lot of time on their hands. Ironically, the principal sources of disinformation – online and social media platforms – were themselves subjected to disinformation. In an era of information pathologies, a few hours without news feeds and updates was not quite immunisation, but it did give us a glimpse of an earlier era!
In a recent book on information pathologies, Eileen Culloty and Jane Suiter declare ‘India, the world’s largest democracy, is at the epicentre of information disorders, both within and outside its borders’, and this is a matter of considerable worry. But the larger concern is the disinformatised world we live in.
Conspiracy, Covid, Disinformation
The UN Human Rights Council’s Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar (2018) noted how ‘social media…Facebook has been a useful instrument to spread hate’, and linked the Rohingya ethnic cleansing to online disinformation spread. Such content, studies show, exacerbate existing prejudices. In a recent study, Eslam Hussein et al in their audit of YouTube videos concluded that ‘watching videos that promote misinformation leads to more misinformative video recommendations’.
2020-21 was a good year for disinformation. It revealed the contours and depth of the disinformation beamed to us on a regular basis. A report, Types, Sources, and Claims of COVID-19 Misinformation, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, stated: “59% … of the misinformation … involves various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked.”
Google documented an astonishing 240 million misleading email messages, daily, during the pandemic, according to one report in the Guardian. Conspiracy theories flourished as the video Plandemic went viral. Plandemic, wrote John Cook et al, authors of The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, had all the features of ‘conspiratorial thinking’. (They also published, helpfully, How to Spot Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories.)
Bad players generate poor content that carries within it emotional and cognitive triggers in the audience and transmitit through platforms. Numerous studies show how disinformation generates the negative emotions: fear, hatred, prejudice and suspicion directed at specific groups. With users incentivised for creating content, hate-messages and disinformation also produce a community of sorts – one that thrives on projecting the Other or the different as an enemy.
The principal problem for regulators (usually the state) and the audience is the unverifiability of the content, and to discern good data from bad. Disinformation does not carry adequate explanations, it misquotes and edits existing data/reports and delivers it up fast. The traditional media’s fact-checking and verification is ignored for speedy delivery on online platforms. It is this ‘fastest finger first’ dissemination method that works to the advantage of disinformation campaigns and reportage. In the process, it creates panic and conspiracy theories, as the Covid-19 situation demonstrated several times over.
Individual resilience to disinformation is clearly inadequate in times like ours. A low trust in news, a distrust of state information systems (public media services) is a clear index of a culture of susceptible audiences. (Canada, apparently, has a very high degree of national resilience to disinformation.)
Social and community polarisation makes the country ripe for disinformation, as has been demonstrated through the 20th century, from Nazi Germany through Rwanda and our own region.That is, a society with deep fissures – economic, cultural and political, based on language, religion and ideology – inevitably produces a susceptible audience for disinformation. It is easy to cater to already existing paranoias and fears about the Other (the Muslim, the Jew, the Dalit, the Rohingya) in such a culture. Disinformation feeds off and into social unhappiness, and triggers further ugly feelings.
Studies show that repeated and well-researched news feeds can counter disinformation – but this has to be a sustained effort. The work of providing verifiable and authenticated news has to be formally organised and disseminated. Campaigns warning people about potential and ongoing disinformation have also been found to be useful (Beware: that WA forward is from an unverified source, and your third cousin, the layabout, is not a credible news provider.) An awareness that we are being manipulated will inoculate the social order – but this awareness can only come, studies tell us, from the sustained efforts of an entire panoply of news media corporations and organisations.
When a social order is made of large numbers of the susceptible audience, when we become more accepting of disinformation and alternative facts, democracy is already lost.
While debates – academic, mostly – about what counts as evidence and truth continue, the disservice provided by malformed content streaming across devices unsettles all deliberations that are the cornerstone, theoretically, of the democratic process. As trust in disinformation rises, a concomitant distrust in the profiled Other also rises.
Media literacy is an indispensable need in the age of disinformation. This may well be served through not a nationwide process of educating the people about their information pathologies but through small-scale interventions in the form of alternative discussion forums and online debates.
Culloty and Suiter argue in favour of ‘deliberative mini-publics’: “Deliberative mini-publics (DMPs), public inquiries, town hall meetings, online consultations, and informal discussions … can contribute to a more informed public sphere in many ways. They can improve the information environment by providing information resources including factual information and knowledge; by fostering citizens’ analytical capacities including relative and critical thinking; and by developing the communication skills to frame arguments around a common good and to engage in discussion with others.”
All this depends on a shared understanding of the decencies of debate (town hall meetings are also shouting matches) and the right to disagree.
The cure for information pathology, evidently, is information itself.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)