My line of work involves doses of politics and social media, so the topic of disinformation frequently comes up. What’s my take? Is it a great scourge of our age or a nuisance that has been blown slightly out of proportion?
I don’t for a minute wish to diminish the perils of disinformation, but I do think the truth sits somewhere in the middle. Of course, it can be terribly damaging. It helps nasties cement their power, and wannabes to attain it. It spreads untruths that can literally be deadly, such as the belief that vaccines cause autism. However, it’s often an easy scapegoat. We blame events we don’t like, such as the election of populists, on disinformation, while ignoring the negligence of mainstream business and political leaders, which has driven disaffection and inequality. Bots exploit disaffection and inequality, they can’t create it from thin air.
But is disinformation likely to become more or less pervasive? There are valid considerations on both sides, but it’s looking pretty bleak. Here are a few things to ponder on the matter, in no particular order.
- Overall, media literacy is improving: it’s being taught in schools; governments and other public bodies are making it a priority
- Kids’ bullshit radars are by and large getting better (based entirely on my interaction with teenagers in my family: I have no empirical evidence)
- Social networks are playing ball (egged on by political and shareholder pressure). This is really important. Making it harder to use Facebook ads or to make money using Google AdSense will disincentivise
- Trust in journalism is on the up (Edelman Trust Barometer)
- Some governments are doing good, as is the EU: pushing it up the agenda, pressuring social networks, supporting good reporting, monitoring election processes, promoting media literacy programmes
- It’s getting easier to fact-check: lots of fact checking sites exist, and they are being used quite widely
- It’s hard to resist: highly emotive and subjective information (as disinformation tends to be) releases dopamine in the brain
- Countering disinformation with facts might not work: confirmation bias means we actually strengthen our beliefs when given contrary evidence
- Worst of all: disinformation has influenced plenty of major political events, and continues to do so
- Nasties invest in disinformation and are getting more proficient at it (no sign of Russian bot farms shutting down)
- Societies are increasingly polarised: anger and distrust means people are more likely to consume and share highly subjective, emotive disinformation
- Audio and video manipulation will make disinformation harder to detect
- 50% of people consume news less than weekly (Edelman Trust Barometer)
- 70% of people have shared content having only read the title (Pew)
- Journalism is under attack, from Trump’s America to Turkey and beyond
- Many good media outlets are struggling: less time to fact check means disinformation gets through the cracks
- Media reports on disinformation as news (think Trump), helping it spread
- It’s hard to regulate. Where do you draw the line? Do Fox News and RT publish disinformation or are they just merely highly partisan? Who checks the fact checkers?
What have I missed? What have I downplayed or overplayed?