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Beyond the Lies - Part One: Understanding Misinformation

By Janine Erasmus

We hear these words more and more often these days. Misinformation and disinformation  have become hot topics particularly in the context of social media and elections.

These terms refer to a process that threatens the truth, whether it be in relation to reputations, politics, journalism, science, or general information. The spread of false information divides and polarises individuals and communities and hands power over to those with nefarious intent.

Misinformation happens when false or inaccurate information is shared without a deliberate intention to deceive – think of it as an honest mistake. Disinformation is a more dangerous animal – this is when information is shared that has been deliberately falsified. 

None of these tactics are new, but the rapid development of the digital era and the rise of social media has allowed them to surge to unprecedented levels. It’s often a race to be the first to share something, and that information is consumed so quickly that users move on to the next thing without paying much attention to the veracity and accuracy of what they are reading. This is a gold mine for those who wish to cause harm, and they take full advantage of it.

In this article we focus specifically on misinformation. 

What does misinformation look like?

Although it may be unintended, misinformation can be as deadly as bad information spread deliberately.

As a tragic example, we only need look back to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a decade ago. Desperate people clung to every scrap of information that might have proved useful – and not all was factual, especially that which was shared on Twitter at the time, an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reveals.

“The most common misinformation was that Ebola might be cured by the plant ewedu or by blood transfusion … Drinking and washing in salty water were also mentioned.”

The authors of the BMJ article monitored hundreds of tweets, finding that only 38% contained scientifically correct information, and 59% contained medical misinformation.

There is the very real risk, in situations like these, of putting lives in danger.

For instance, widespread rumours about tracking chips in Covid-19 vaccines would likely have deterred thousands of people from accepting a potentially life-saving intervention.

One only has to pop in to X (Twitter), Facebook or TikTok to notice the astoundingly bad quality of information that is routinely shared there – stories that are so far removed from reality that it seems impossible that anyone could believe them. Satire and parody aside, the multiple deaths of Morgan Freeman or the conspiracy theories around the use of 5G technology have become so well-known that they have ascended into the realm of urban legend.

However, other misinformation is more insidious. The stories of children succumbing to the so-called Blue Whale and Momo challenges caused worldwide panic. Whether these incidents were true or not, the stories about them are disturbing and dangerous. Parents really did fret about their children getting caught up in the hype, and there really were incidents of cyber-bullying related to the challenges – these are distressing situations that should not have happened.

Misinformation spread in 2020 about China’s apparent military presence in South Africa had the potential to cause a backlash against South African Chinese residents, again putting lives at risk. Meanwhile, the so-called white genocide in South Africa is as much myth as it is truth, yet there are many who believe in it as they do the words their religious leaders utter. 

Other misinformation is based on tragic fact. In mid-2023 the OceanGate tourist submersible Titan was found destroyed after having gone silent during a dive to view the wreckage of the Titanic. Videos on X and TikTok purported to have recorded the screams of the five doomed passengers, and garnered millions of views – but the source was found to be from the horror game franchise Five Nights at Freddy’s. Shared with no thought for the families of the victims, these videos quickly went viral, probably just for the dubious reward of likes, comments, and shares.

Even US president Joe Biden got in on the act, claiming to have been arrested in South Africa in 1977. His story turned out to be a confusing muddle, but his belief in his experience appeared to be genuine.

Causes of misinformation

It’s important to understand the causes of misinformation if it is to be successfully countered. There are many factors contributing to what the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) refers to as the current “perfect storm” of convergent pressures that feed ‘information disorder’.

Some of these factors, says UNESCO in its handbook titled Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation, include:

  • The erosion of trust in journalism and mainstream media organisations.

  • Targeted online harassment of journalists (particularly women), their sources, and their audiences.

  • Social media platforms placing audiences at the forefront of content discovery and distribution and making them collaborators in the production of news.

  • Audience expectations of ‘on-demand’ news, mobile delivery and real-time engagement on social media further increasing pressure on news professionals facing diminishing resources in a never-ending news cycle.

  • The rise of computational propaganda and the ‘weaponisation of mistrust’.

These days, essentially any person can be a content producer, bypassing traditional gatekeepers such as fact-checking and editorial monitoring, competing for the world’s attention – including “powerful politicians seeking to undermine the credibility of critical reporting”.

“The lines between fact, entertainment, advertising, fabrication, and fiction are increasingly blurred,” says UNESCO.

A big problem is that the speed of online transmission means that content zips around the world at lightning speed, often going viral within minutes. Once it’s out there, it’s impossible to pull information back even if it is debunked. This is a unique feature of social media, says the American Psychological Association (APA), in that content can quickly be widely shared with minimum oversight, and by the time the mistake is realised, it is too late. 

Furthermore, says the APA, “Echo chambers bind and isolate online communities with similar views, which aids the spread of falsehoods and impedes the spread of factual corrections. This problem disproportionately affects individuals who consume content from conservative political sources.”

The APA says that merely being exposed to misinformation will  increase the odds that people will believe it. This in turn increases the odds that they will spread it.

“At the same time, people do not necessarily need to believe misinformation in order to spread it; people may share information they know is false to signal their political affiliation, disparage perceived opponents, or accrue social rewards.” 

Psychological factors contribute significantly to this process, adds the APA. “People are more likely to share misinformation when it aligns with personal identity or social norms, when it is novel, and when it elicits strong emotions.”

What to do about misinformation

“The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true,” Justice Anthony Kennedy of the US Supreme Court held in United States v Alvarez. “This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.”

However, the digital age complicates that straightforward approach, and this calls for innovation. In addition, freedom of expression is a right upheld in democracies around the world, whether the expression is truthful or not – the WASHLITE v Fox case is a clear example, where the non-profit organisation took Fox News to court for “disseminating false, misleading, and incomplete information regarding Covid-19, which had the effect of deceiving the general public”. WASHLITE lost its case, which sought to prevent Fox from further sharing such information, and to retract that which it had already shared.

The UNESCO journalism handbook suggests prevention in the form of media and information literacy (MIL) campaigns, rigorous fact-checking, social media verification, and pushing back against harassment of journalists who are engaged in fact-checking exercises.

The organisation explains that MIL is increasingly an essential life skill, “needed to know what is co-shaping one’s identity and how one can navigate information fog and avoid concealed mines within the mist. MIL informs our consumption, production, discovery, evaluation and sharing of information, and our understanding of ourselves and others in the information society.”

The APA suggests two levels of intervention: system-level approaches like legislation and technology standards focus on broad systemic changes, while individual-level approaches focus on changing individual behaviours – the latter include measures such as debunking, prebunking, literacy training, and nudging.

On a wider scale, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) says that social platforms should take the initiative by coding prominent features for filtering and flagging. “They should work with journalists and social psychologists to invent a new visual grammar so that when content is fact-checked, debunked, corrected, or verified, those processes are transparent and available to anyone seeking to understand more about the origins of a story.”

There are many resources for fact-checking, besides the obvious ones like looking to see if trustworthy publications have also shared the information, or if it has been spread only by individuals – that is a red flag right there.

Organisations like the well-known Snopes have made a success out of debunking misinformation. Reputable media houses such as Deutsche Welle and the Associated Press have dedicated fact-checking sections on their websites. Other sites such as Full Fact and the Poynter Institute’s Politifact do sterling work, and there is no excuse for claiming ignorance when the resources are there.

Here at home, we have the respected Africa Check, which is focusing presently on political and election-related matters. This should be a first port of call in attempting to debunk news of this nature, especially in the lead-up to South African general elections.

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