How Disinformation Impacts Politics and Drives Public Perception

Table of Contents

The term disinformation, more commonly referred to as “fake news”, has found its way into virtually every sphere of life since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

From Europe to America, almost every continent and country is facing the impact of disinformation. There is no way to deny that it is showing an upward trend which can only be quelled through the sensible and responsible use of technology.

What is disinformation?

Disinformation is the use of half-truth and non-rational arguments to manipulate public opinion in pursuit of political objectives. The critical difference between disinformation and misinformation is that disinformation is intentionally propagated biased or misleading information with the objective of placing a particular social group, country, organisation, or person at a disadvantage by driving public perception.

The dissemination of disinformation has been so rampant, that there are now sites like dedicated to debunking fake news and fact-checking new information.

The content of political disinformation spans across a broad spectrum, from stories that might be somewhat credible, such as an endorsement of a politician from a surprising source, to those that are utterly unbelievable, such as the accusation that a candidate for national office is involved in a child-exploitation ring housed in the basement of a pizza parlour, aka ‘Pizzagate’.

According to a Q1 2019 survey by Statista, 65% of and 63% of Americans stated that misinformation and disinformation, respectively, were a major problem in the country, ranking them above issues such as the economy and quality of education. The same survey also summarised the public perception that social media was the overwhelming reason behind the spreading of disinformation.

Globally, online platforms dominate the source of news over traditional media for people aged 18 to 44 and these numbers will only continue to skew in that direction.

As the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, there is a continuing outcry echoing the fear of another surge of another disinformation campaign. After all, the Cambridge Analytica scandal is still fresh in the mind of most Americans.


United States

Information War: COVID-19

In the past, we have seen superpowers testing advanced missiles to bolster their position in a show of power and, in a sense, threaten each other. Although the pandemic has bridled that temporarily, the war of words is going on.

As reported in The New York Times, U.S officials have claimed that using techniques previously utilized by Russia, Chinese operatives were amplifying viral text messages using SMS and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that falsely claimed that President Trump was going to instate a nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19

The origin of the messages, though, remained murky. American officials stressed they did not believe that Chinese operatives themselves had fabricated the messages, but rather amplified existing ones. This enabled them to be disseminated to enough people that they then spread on their own from then on, with little need for further malicious work by foreign agents. The messages appeared to have gained significant traction on Facebook as they were also proliferating through text messages, according to the analysis by The New York Times.

American officials also said that the Chinese operatives had adopted similar techniques that were mastered by Russia-backed trolls during the 2016 elections, such as creating fake social media accounts to push messages to unsuspecting users, who in turn unwittingly help spread them. Texts and encrypted messaging apps were also apparently used as part of their campaigns, which are much harder for law enforcement officers to monitor than on social media platforms.

The United States and China are engaged in a mammoth information war over the pandemic, one that has added a new dimension to their existing economic rivalry.

On the other hand, Chinese officials have accused President Donald J. Trump and his allies of overtly peddling malicious information, specifically pointing to the president’s repeated calling of the coronavirus as “Chinese virus”, or the suggestion that the virus may have originated as a Chinese bioweapon, a theory that U.S. intelligence agencies as well the WHO have since ruled out. 


President Donald Trump versus Twitter

Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook and Yoel Roth, Head of Site Integrity at Twitter have been working together to tackle disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following all these developments, Facebook and Twitter announced in May that they will roll out a strategy to prevent the spread of disinformation. Especially, Twitter took the measure to flag unsubstantiated tweets and take action based on 3 broad categories:

    • Misleading information: Statements that have been confirmed to be false or misleading by subject-matter experts, such as public health authorities.
    • Disputed claim: Statements in which the accuracy, truthfulness, or credibility of the claim is disputed or unknown.
    • Unverified claim: Information that is unconfirmed at the time it is shared.

President Trump has gone as far as signing one of his executive orders against Twitter, after his tweets regarding “vote by mail” were marked as unsubstantiated by Twitter.

In his tweets, President Trump openly targeted vote by mail by calling it fraudulent. Trump is now accusing Twitter of electioneering and taking sides after the platform has unpublished one of his tweets which was directly against its policy for supposedly inciting violence.       


United Kingdom

The situation is not so bright on the other side of the Atlantic either.  

5G met with arson and vandalism

There has been outrage in the UK after 5G mobile phone towers, including ones owned by Vodafone and EE, were vandalized and set on fire purely based on disinformation in April of this year.

The unfounded conspiracy theories reportedly began when a Belgian doctor speculated to a local newspaper regarding 5G masts in Wuhan, China, where the new coronavirus originated. Despite the article being since removed, the narrative was subsequently picked up by conspiratorial Internet personalities and has spread across the Internet at the same time the coronavirus fears and anxieties gripped the world.

Contrary to the conspiracy theories, which say 5G’s high-frequency waves are harmful, the scientific community agrees that they are below the wavelength that can damage human cells and are classified as non-ionizing. The fifth standard of mobile networks was deemed safe by the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection earlier this year.

It is understandable that misinformation like the baseless 5G theories would spread in such an uncertain time when there is a widespread presence and long periods of great anxiety about unknown events and unknown threats. From their genesis in an obscure corner of the internet, the theories spread onto mainstream social networks like Facebook and YouTube, where they were picked up by prominent celebrities including Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and Amanda Holden, further increasing their reach. 

This, too, played a part in Twitter and Facebook’s initiative to flag potentially untrue information on their platforms.

British Minister Michael Gove has directly pointed out to Facebook, Twitter, and other prominent social media platforms for not taking rapid action. According to British officials, this kind of unthinkable and irrational activity could have been prevented if the platforms used to spread them were more responsible.

In June, one of the first associated convicted arsonists was sentenced to jail.


Rest of the World

India: From Covid-19 to Communal Tensions

India has the largest Whatsapp user base in the world with upwards of 200 million users. And, that is one of the prime platforms where disinformation has gained traction in the country. As reported by Foreign Policy Rather than tackling the source of the problem, police have been carrying out rampant arrests throughout the country since April, which has raised concerns over human rights and questions over the ability of local and national government to control misinformation at its source.

The topic of disinformation itself varied from fake remedies of COVID-19 to false claims of certain religious groups contaminating food in the market with the virus, further worsening the communal and caste-based violence that has been prevalent in the country in recent years.

A fact check by Indian Express, shown above, verifies that fake news primarily spreads in India through out of context videos combined with untrue textual information. It also depicts, as shown below, that communally charged disinformation surrounding COVID-19 saw a huge uptick in and around the month of April along with other topics such as health remedies and national lockdown policies.

It is here that it is imperative for authorities to instead begin combating bad information with good information and curtail the room for speculation. However, if the government benefits from the rapid spread of false information, there is little likelihood of pivoting with a shift in strategy.


Brazil: Ranked#1 for Fake News concerns

In a 2019 survey by Statista, the one country that was the most concerned about disinformation was Brazil, and that too by 15% more than the UK who came in second.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, long before his oath of office ceremony, promised to change the country. The hardline nationalist president made his point clear – there is no room for worry regarding clearing acres of forest in Amazon for agricultural and industrial uses. He also encouraged extracting resources from the “lungs of the world”. In 2019, when the fire got out of control, and many world leaders made their anger over the issue known, he and his supporter base on social media painted a much more contradicting picture.

After Brazil’s space research agency, INPE, released hard data showing that the amazon fires in 2019 were significantly greater than in years prior, the Brazilian government officials propagated messages that the media’s depiction of the fire was exaggerated.

More recently though, like a lot of other countries, fake news downplaying the extent of COVID-19 infections in the country was spread and shared by a local legislator, as BBC reports, and the President’s rather dismissive attitude towards the crisis has not helped the cause either. This after Brazil just recently usurped Russia to have the second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.  One of Brazil’s leading newspapers, the Folha de São Paulo, claimed an investigation by Brazil’s equivalent to the FBI had homed in on Carlos Bolsonaro, the president’s social-media-savvy son, as an alleged key members of a “criminal fake news racket”.


Wrapping Up

Based on all the above-mentioned examples and incidences, it is apparent political and power driven movements and their spearheads and supporters are using social media as a tool to divide people based on a political point of view, often times leveraging sensitive issues such as race, religion, environment and health.

Although Facebook, Twitter and other major social media platforms have reiterated their position to develop a more effective AI-based mechanism to trace and flush out disinformation, there is a long way to go.

The verdict is up in the air as to who shall be responsible in fighting fake news online. But if the above information proves any single thing, it is the fact that it is incumbent upon every stakeholder to play their part:

    • Tech and Social Media companies to vet information for authenticity. Although social media was never created for vetting information, the sheer influence of it warrants such a mechanism. Just like you would expect your national newspaper to have a strong editorial and publishing standard driven by facts and truth, you should expect no less from social media companies. If you think of it with that approach, the argument against it in the form of quelling people’s freedom of speech holds no grounds.
    • Users to share information more responsibly and verify their sources
    • Government to build a rigorous policy framework that empowers and enforces all media companies to follow strict information dissemination audit on sensitive and trending topics.

However, as mentioned earlier, if the very existence of disinformation benefits any of these stakeholders at large, they will have little skin in the game in terms of addressing the global predicament around it.  

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