Disinformation and propaganda disguised as truth constitute more than a minor threat to social and political stability. This has been found to be so everywhere such practices are evident.
Responsible authorities and non-state institutions have been keeping a sharp eye on this, within the context of the use of new and social media, for about two decades now. Free expression rapporteurs from the United Nations, Europe, Africa and the Americas have issued more than one joint communiqué on the subject. There is also a lot of literature on traditional propaganda campaigns and how they work.
In the meantime, there is a growing body of direction on how this problem can be significantly dealt with – particularly when it comes to addressing the quality of traditional and new media audiences – without substantially threatening free expression.
The basic modus operandi behind the most recent versions of this phenomenon are now well known and understood and the direction flows of such information are becoming easier to track.
We know that both elements supportive of governments and those in opposition are routinely co-opted to facilitate and to enhance flows of disinformation. There are also non-state private actors that may for a number of reasons attempt to sway public opinion on a variety of matters, some criminal in nature.
I have repeatedly argued in fora examining such issues that a primary, durable intervention would be to focus on improving the discerning eyes and ears of receivers of news and information. “Media and information literacy” is the fancy term employed by development people nowadays.
Let’s break this down a bit and assume someone in a Whatsapp group posts a social media message ostensibly emanating from a senior police officer.
Let’s also say there is reference to a “Home Affairs” department of government and “upcoming elections” in the country.
What we would need are people to start asking some basic questions and to apply a more naturally sceptical pre-disposition. Firstly, do we have a “home affairs” department in T&T? Secondly, what “upcoming elections”?
Then, armed with an abundance of scepticism, portions of the message from your inbox can be entered into a search engine or one of several websites now used to identify “fake news.” Snopes is an easy one to use.
Voilà! “Home Affairs” and “upcoming elections” together with other key terms used in the Whatsapp message will yield an October 17, 2017 missive from South African officials regarding ANC leadership elections there last year – replicated almost word for word in the Whatsapp message. Takes a few minutes.
The next, slightly more difficult exercise, would be to work out ‘who’ might be behind what appears to be a coordinated effort to generate panic and concern about a visitation from some “home department” to verify elections-related information.
Many times, the person who innocently posts clearly bogus information on the group, would try to later diminish the potential harm by stating that such information can serve as a useful warning about the possibility of fake state operatives making the rounds.
Inquisitive sceptics (a condition to which some journalists are prone) would then position the finding alongside prevailing disinformation on, let’s say, the application of the property tax - to cite one possible, non-exclusive lead - and a variety of complementary online resources, including shady “news” outlets and supportive Facebook groups and pages.
Now, be clear, there is an essential difference between misinformation and disinformation. What online propaganda campaigns do is promote intentionally false (and often malicious) information through the use of people and channels that have the potential to innocently disseminate false information to wide and diverse audiences.
Additionally, one of the other main features of coordinated campaigns of disinformation is the effort to weaken the value of countervailing, authoritative sources of authentic information, of which the so-called “mainstream” mass media are but one.
It is therefore not surprising to often witness a high level of hostility toward and slurs directed at journalists and their media houses by politicians and their surrogates. This has been proven to be the case up North.
It’s almost axiomatic that disinformation campaigns embrace attacks on journalism and individual journalists. What is needed is a mainstream and social media consuming public that more readily diagnoses some pretty self-evident symptoms. Keep your eyes wide open!
(Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian)