The internet is both wonderful and wicked. The world’s combined knowledge is at our fingertips, as is its debauchery. It is so much easier to find things out and so much harder to sort out the truth from the lies.
We tend to live in echo chambers, seeking out the information that confirms our world view – and there are some very strange views out there, but you can always find affirmation if you look for it.
But of far greater concern is the deliberate disinformation.
The term disinformation began as a term of Soviet tradecraft, first defined in the official Great Soviet Encyclopedia as “the dissemination (in the press, radio, etc.) of false information with the intention to deceive public opinion.”
Former Soviet bloc intelligence officer Ladislav Bittman, the first disinformation practitioner to defect to the West publicly, described the official definition as different from the practice: “The interpretation is slightly distorted because public opinion is only one of the potential targets. Many disinformation games are designed only to manipulate the decision-making elite, and receive no publicity.”
After the Soviet term became widely known in the 1980s, it broadened to “any government communication (either overt or covert) containing intentionally false and misleading material, often combined selectively with true information, which seeks to mislead and manipulate either elites or a mass audience.”
In June, a group of over 250 academics signed an open letter in the Telegraph to criticise the deliberate misinformation circulated by campaigners on both sides of the Brexit debate.
A referendum result is democratically legitimate only if voters can make an informed decision. Yet, the level of misinformation in the current campaign is so great that democratic legitimacy is called into question.
Both sides are making misleading claims. Their official communications have been dropping through letter boxes – at taxpayers’ expense – in recent days. Vote Leave’s leaflet purports to offer “The Facts”, yet leads with the claim that EU membership costs the UK £350 million a week – repeatedly exposed by independent authorities as a blatant falsehood. The Remain leaflet begins by saying that “over 3 million UK jobs are linked to our exports to the EU”. Though this is in line with independent analyses, not all these jobs would go in the event of Brexit.
Propagating falsehoods, with support from the public purse, distorts the public communication upon which democracy depends. When the dust from this referendum settles, we must review means of strengthening campaign truthfulness without curtailing legitimate free speech.
In the short term, broadcasters and the media must focus more fearlessly on challenging deliberate misinformation from both sides. Impartial fact-checkers – at the BBC, Channel 4, Full Fact, the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, and elsewhere – are doing excellent work, but are receiving insufficient attention. As the campaign draws to a close, an informed public decision true to the values of British democracy depends on a change of tone.
The deliberate disinformation campaign against action on climate change has been exposed and widely reported yet many people still cling to the lies spread by vested interests and the politicians they support.
The “energy independence” section of Donald Trump’s transition website — there is no “environment” section — reads like an oil-and-gas-industry wish list.
“Rather than continuing the current path to undermine and block America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters,” the site states. “We will streamline the permitting process for all energy projects, including the billions of dollars in projects held up by President Obama, and rescind the job-destroying executive actions under his Administration. We will end the war on coal, and rescind the coal mining lease moratorium, the excessive Interior Department stream rule, and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama Administration.”
Labor’s Mediscare campaign was a recent domestic example of disinformation. Having just sold Medibank Private, people were scared that the same was going to happen to Medicare – patently false as Medicare is not a profit-making organisation. Obviously, what Labor was pointing at, and rightly, was the increasing outsourcing of bits of Medicare which costs us jobs, money and security. But that wasn’t the headline.
I have used graphs put out by the Liberal Party to teach students about distortion – they employ classic techniques that a high school maths student could point out, just as the climate change deniers do.
We have also been subjected to a great deal of censorship from the Coalition government who purport to be the champions of freedom of speech. They have undermined freedom of information and developed a whole vocabulary of phrases that all amount to “not telling and you can’t make me so ner ner”.
When channels of information cannot be completely closed or controlled, as with the internet, they can be rendered useless by filling them with disinformation, effectively lowering their signal-to-noise ratio and discrediting the opposition by association with many easily disproved false claims.
Successful democracy depends on an informed electorate to choose the appropriate representatives and informed politicians to make the right choices. When information is withheld, obfuscated, or corrupted with lies, democracy is up for sale to the bidder with the loudest voice and the money to buy the biggest megaphone.