Dealing with Disinformation

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Asad Tahir Jappa

The ugly facets of fake news, false information and deceptively packaged contents are vividly present in almost every walk of life. In the political sphere, propaganda is the new normal and there are diametrically opposed narratives and counter narratives

With the advent of fourth revolution in the post-modern world, means of communication have undergone total transformation. Backed by internet and powered by smart phones, digital media have reduced the whole universe to a virtual global village, in letter and spirit. The fast, free and ferociously fierce social media have broken barriers of time and space, maximized human connectivity and contributed significantly to the informal education of the marginalized millions across the globe. Never before in human history man was more aware and better informed about the socio-political developments taking place in the remotest corner of the world and that too in a jiffy and with no costs.
That’s itself a revolution. But this has its own price tag. While talking tall of a revolutionary access to information, man is ending up with misinformation, disinformation and mal information. In pursuit of truth, the digital man is groping in the mayhem of lies shrouded in the coffin of propaganda, manipulated narratives and maneuvered facts which are suspicious in content or malicious in intent. At times, they are characterized by both. This is so paradoxical and ironic that while social media and its proponents are claiming rare victories on various fronts, there are some serious questions being asked about the secrecy, sanctity, and veracity of data/information being shared through traditional platforms of centralized social media i.e. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Whatsapp etc. Therefore, dealing with disinformation is one of the most pressing problems that top managers in both public and private sectors are confronted with. In this age of information overload, it is such a challenging proposition to separate truth from a pack of lies masqueraded as real.
Ideally, these most sophisticated digitally driven means of communication would have glued human society as one strong extended global family of God on the planet earth, under the sun. Transcending beyond the realm of time, humanity could have benefitted hugely by interdependence and thus live the dreams of peaceful coexistence in a homogeneous cosmopolitan society. Contrary to these cherished aspirations, humanity stands highly polarized and the world is divided between digital natives and digital aliens in addition to other forces which sharpen divisions. This is so very frustrating and self-defeating. The ugly facets of fake news, false information and deceptively packaged contents are vividly present in almost every walk of life.
In the political sphere, propaganda is the new normal and there are diametrically opposed narratives and counter narratives. In social domain, reality is hidden behind the multi-layered disinformation being churned out with total impunity. The researchers and academics are finding it hard to access the true and genuine sources to rely on during the course of their research. More often than not, they end up with shady and questionable content which lacks credibility and originality.
In governments, those who are supposed to make well informed decision both at policy and operational level are finding it extremely difficult to distinguish between facts and fiction. Law enforcing agencies across the world are making their lives miserable as they get badly caught in a hybrid warfare which is testing their nerves. Likewise, Armies are under huge duress to find new ways and invent innovative tools to grapple with these new armory where minds are being captured through manipulated propaganda. Our children are highly vulnerable as they surface and bump into camouflaged cartoons and games which entice them enough to take a very toll of their intellectual and moral standing. Many end up even losing their lives in a deceptive virtual world of make believe. This is highly criminal and largely bordering insanity.
Hence, tackling disinformation is of the essence now. False or fake information is dangerous because of its inherent ability to influence public opinion and shape a manipulated narrative for political ends. The manipulated narratives can enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to enter public discourse and be treated as fact. Once embedded, such ideas can in turn be used to create scapegoats, to normalize prejudices, to harden us-versus-them mentalities and even, in extreme cases, to catalyze and justify violence. The factors such as source credibility, repetition, and social pressure affect information flows and the extent to which misinformation is taken seriously. When viewers see trusted sources repeat certain points, they are more likely to be influenced by that material. Similarly, fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns are especially problematic in political spheres, and there is an ever growing debate on how to address these issues without compromising the benefits of digital media.
In order to maintain an open, democratic system, it is important that government, business, and consumers work together to solve these problems. Therefore, governments should promote news literacy and strong professional journalism in their societies. It is imperative that the news industry must provide high-quality and robust journalistic standards to build public trust and find enduring solutions to verify fake news and rectify disinformation. Similarly, technology outfits and business ventures should invest in tools that identify fake news, reduce financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation, and improve online accountability. Likewise, educational institutions must accord it top priority to promote news literacy and invest heavily in research that focuses on tackling disinformation.
Last but not the least, individuals should also act responsibly and rely on diverse sources of news or information. They ought to exercise caution and be skeptical about what they read and watch. In the ultimate analysis, we can safely infer that there are a number of ways to build and promote a timely, accurate, and civil discourse to effectively deal with false news and disinformation. In today’s highly globalized world, there is considerable experimentation taking place with online news platforms. It is also very reassuring to witness that news organizations are testing products and services aimed at identifying hate speech and language that incites violence. There is no denying the fact that every individual has a role in combating the scourge of fake news and disinformation.
Time has already come to fight this menace collectively and the human society worldwide has a shared responsibility to arrest the onslaught of disinformation. The possible interventions include but not limited to promoting strong norms on professional journalism, encouraging investigative journalism, reducing financial incentives for fake news, and improving digital literacy among public at large. Combined together, these concrete measures taken on ground, would certainly advance a useful discourse suited for an enabling environment that is critically needed to vigorously deal with disinformation across the globe.
Edward Bernays, in his bestseller book titled as Propaganda published almost 100 years ago in 1928, had very rightly remarked, “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group. This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of persons is very common. Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job. The important thing is that it is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.”