Lies, distortions, disinformation and spin – democracies are up against it


Forget the pandemic. 2020 was the year of the infodemic. Lies, distortions and bucketloads of spin were fed into social media in the past year on issues as diverse as virology, politics and history. So how do democracies survive in a post-truth world?

It’s a matter of belief. But the impact is real.

Seven out of 10 Republicans are convinced that President-elect Joe Biden has “stolen” the US election. That’s 50 million Americans.

But that belief has failed every reality test. Republican election officials have certified the results. Republican judges have thrown out challenges for being baseless.

But that reality has been brushed aside by the power of belief. And that belief has been weaponised.

International analysts say spin has long since moved out of the back rooms filled with political advisers. It is no longer just the tool of choice for lobby groups and commercial advocates. It has mutated into a devastating weapon in the hands of dictators.

According to the European-based think tank Atlantic Council, social media has become a clear and present danger.

“The intentional use of misleading information to influence societies presents a serious threat to the integrity of democratic systems,” its report reads.

“Authoritarian states regularly use it to exploit democracies’ open information systems, presenting a significant national security threat that demands a purposeful and concerted response.”

And it has a plan for fighting back: “Defence against disinformation has to be rooted in democratic principles and values: transparency, accountability, and respect for freedom of expression. We must not become them to fight them.”

Assault on trust

Controversy has long boosted newspaper sales. But in the case of social media, clicks equal cash. So pushing controversial content to the top of people’s feeds is the fundamental business model of the likes of Facebook and YouTube.

And they’ve found a rich market to exploit.

But, according to Dr Kate Starbird, these international megacorporations are starting to realise the damage they are doing.

“They tried. They were certainly making changes. They were certainly trying to address the problems,” the University of Washington associate professor of election integrity recently told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “I think they had prepared very well for the issues we saw in 2016 around foreign campaigns and inauthentic [fake] accounts.”

But their outcomes were mixed. The information assault was one they hadn’t prepared for.

“In 2020, what we saw in the US wasn’t foreign, and it wasn’t inauthentic. It was disinformation coming from authentic, and in many cases, verified accounts of political leaders, media outlets and others who had huge audiences.”

Social media platforms attempted to address this on the fly, but with varied results.

And it was a politically sensitive scenario, where high-profile figures had to have their posts labelled as unreliable. Which is why the 2020 elections represent another victory for democracy’s assailants, she says.

“The outcome of that campaign was probably very successful if their goal was just to undermine trust in the results.

“And I think that’s bad for democracy. I think the platforms understand that. I think they’ll be thinking about what they could do better.

Psychological warfare

“There’s a reason we’re very vulnerable to this.

“It’s part of our human, our animal nature in some ways, of why we’re vulnerable to certain kinds of sensational information and misinformation, in-group out-group stuff.”

Voters haven’t changed. What has changed is the ability of interest groups to manipulate voters. The science of psychology has made great inroads.

“To be honest, there are entities out in the world that understand how this works, and they’re trying to manipulate these vulnerabilities for their political power,” Starbird said.

The Atlantic Council sees real danger in this modern political minefield.

“The intentional use of misleading information to influence society presents a serious threat to the integrity of democratic systems,” its report reads. Enticing lies “exploit democracies’ open information systems, presenting a significant national security threat that demands a purposeful and concerted response.”

But the battlefield is a sensitive one.

There are a handful of immensely rich, immensely powerful global megacorporations.

And then there are the minds of the voting public.

“I mean, we’re vulnerable, psychologically vulnerable,” Starbird said.

“There’s something about the way our [social and traditional media] technology is currently designed that is resonating with those kinds of vulnerabilities. They’ve created the audiences that are just addicted to this kind of information.”

Fertile ground

The impact is generational in its reach.

Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy has identified a dramatic shift in the beliefs of Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996.

Just 15 years ago, their generation held great faith in democracy. No more. The tipping point was the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

“Higher debt burdens, lower odds of owning a home, greater challenges in starting a family, and reliance upon inherited wealth rather than hard work and talent to succeed are all contributors to youth discontent,” Dr Roberto Foa, the study’s lead author says.

And this collapse of faith in democracy is most evident in the Anglo-Saxon world: the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

And that discontent makes these democracies vulnerable to manipulation.

The Atlantic Council report states “purveyors of disinformation” have grown more sophisticated. And their tactics are rapidly evolving.

“The line between domestic and foreign disinformation has blurred, with [foreign] agents using local actors as proxies to carry out disinformation operations,” it reads.

It states Russia has been leading the way in information warfare. But “China and other foreign players [Iran, for example] have also entered the disinformation game”.

But domestic political ambitions are also at play. And they’re often happy to take help wherever they can find it.

Fighting retreat

In 2016, the information assault was mostly external. Sources were quickly traced to foreign actors based mainly in Russia and North Korea.

But the damage was done. The seeds of discontent had already been planted.

And those seeds bore fruit in 2020.

Despite being defeated by a greater margin than his own 2016 victory, US President Donald Trump remains defiant. So too do his supporters.

Some 48 per cent of Republican voters believe Trump will be sworn in on January 20, 2021. Not that he should be. That he will be.

Their preferences have been hardened. Their beliefs reinforced. Their expectations of vote-rigging primed.

The results are disturbing.

Philadelphia police recently detained two men in a Q-anon festooned Hummer with pistols, a semiautomatic rifle and a samurai sword. They declared they were on the way to “straighten things out” at a local polling station.

They had broadcast a rallying cry on Facebook Live. They were responding to a press conference by Trump: “They don’t want anybody watching as they count the ballots,” he declared.

Trump was responding to a viral social media video where election officials prevented a registered observer from entering the facility. “This is a coup against the President of the United States of America,” live streamer Brian McCafferty declared. But the ‘no video’ signs were on the walls for all to see – and on his signed observer registration form.

But he was still invited to appear on national television and radio talk shows, nevertheless.

The truth will set us free

“Unevenly, but steadily, a structure for democratic defence against disinformation is emerging, consistent with the principles of transparency, accountability, and respect for freedom of expression,” the Atlantic Council report reads.

Incumbent governments have historically had issues with these principles. But, once democracy puts them back into opposition, they suddenly become relevant again.

Democracy’s weakness is also its strength. What it needs is trust.

The council argues networks of “disinformation detectors” must be established by both civil and government agencies. Social media companies must be seen to consistently enforce internal standards. And governments must move to apply regulatory frameworks to new technologies in the same manner they already apply to traditional print, radio and television formats.

“While defensive measures cannot block all disinformation, they can limit disinformation as more people learn to filter it out on their own,” the report states.

It also recommends counter-attacks.

“Offence does not mean spreading disinformation [that would not be consistent with democratic values and democracies aren’t good at it anyway],” it states.

It does, however, mean building digital arsenals capable of tracing the source of misinformation attacks, expose their acts – and disable them.

This means more than just cyber counter-attack. Sanctions must target operators and create costly deterrence for state-based actors.

And its final piece of advice will not be welcome to partisan political parties: They should support independent, investigative, verifiable journalism as it “plays to the greatest strengths of free societies dealing with authoritarian adversaries”.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer.

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