By Sophia Rigby
Disinformation is nothing new. It seems to be a commonly held belief that disinformation is a new style of warfare and interference, put to perfect use in the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis, the 2016 US election, and the 2016 Brexit referendum. But disinformation has been around for centuries to spread malicious rumours and to discredit rivals; what is new is the manner of spreading disinformation and how quickly it can spread.
The advent of social media and technological advances have meant that we have a mass of information at our fingertips and expect to be able to find a concise answer to complex problems in seconds. Or 0.37 seconds, which is how long it took Google to find me results relating to the Internal Market Bill. However, unlike the encyclopaedias of old, few of these results will come with verifiable and reliable evidence attached. Anyone can post on a blog or Wikipedia and almost anyone can doctor a photograph or a video (to varying degrees of success),yet we have very little in the public sphere, especially education, about evaluating sources of information and treating news critically.
The 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to recognise disinformation as a significant threat to national security under its cyber section. But the recently published Russia Report in the UK found that Russian disinformation was fomenting political extremism around Brexit and other divisive issues. This puts disinformation purely in the domain of political and national security, an area of life that for many people seem as remote from their daily lives, as the countries in which the threats originate.
However, in the context of the growing anti-vax movement and alternative therapies for Covid-19, we observe how disinformation coupled with public ignorance of the facts are negatively impacting our everyday lives. Anti-vax and anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists have taken to the streets in European capitals (including London on 19 September), to protest against the lockdown measures and the mandatory wearing of face masks, in attempts to discredit any future vaccine. Anti-vax theories are gaining a greater following in the UK, but the impact can be clearly seen in many American cities which are seeing an increase in cases of measles, mumps, and tuberculosis as vaccination levels decrease.
Despite accumulated scientific evidence pointing to the reliability of vaccines, not least the eradication of devastating diseases in the UK such as polio, and the discreditation of the scientists who first supported anti-vax theories, people are still inclined to believe some stranger on Facebook. This is made possible by disinformation methods that have become far more sophisticated and appear in articles on websites, in videos on news sites, and rarely find engagement with vigorous debate. The anonymity of social media and the courage (or bravado) this instils in people mean that reasonable voices are drowned out by those spouting vitriolic abuse at any dissenting voices. Mainstream views are pushed out as extreme voices resort to threats and insults to get their point across more firmly.
‘Knowledge is power’ (was first written down in Thomas Hobbes’ political tome Leviathan in 1668) is perhaps not the most powerful argument in favour, but how are we to make sure that the knowledge being distributed and circulated in social media networks is accurate? Firstly, and most importantly, we have to stop using the same tactics. From the politician who purposely manipulates statistics to make a false impression of reality, to the wordsmith who uses language to mask the truth, to the politician who rebrands their party political account to appear as an independent fact checking organisation.
We know statistics can be manipulated and it is done time and time again in debates on poverty statistics. Relative poverty and absolute poverty are two different measures – relative poverty is set at 60% of the average net household income in the year in question and can fluctuate from year to year whereas absolute poverty is set at 60% of the average net household income of 2010/11 and does not fluctuate over time. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies data, relative poverty rates have increased for children and everyone overall, for working-age non-parents and pensioners they have stayed fairly level. However, absolute poverty rates have decreased for pensioners and working-age non-parents, stayed fairly level for everyone overall, and increased for children. So, the Government can claim to have reduced poverty and use statistics to back up that fact, the Opposition and charities can claim poverty has increased, and the public are none the wiser to the actual state of affairs.
Politicians will always use the best evidence to support their claims, and the opposition will always pull another piece of evidence that seems to suggest otherwise – that’s just the way politics works. With elections and Government at stake, it seems impossible as well as naïve to assume that for politicians would speak plainly and leave the party-political rhetoric at the door. But journalists have a responsibility, not just to support the politicians whose party their editor or paper supports, but to analyse claims and show their respective strengths and weaknesses. They also need to look at the use of anonymous sources and treat them as factual. Without the opportunity to assess the reliability of sources, we are both failing to look critically at information and encouraging belief in faceless facts.
Ultimately, we need critical thinkers. Schools try to teach critical thinking through History and English Literature, but all subjects have a role to play in teaching us to look at the world more critically and analyse what is being told to us. Maths is important in showing us how statistics can be manipulated, Science can show us the complex systems in place to develop vaccines as well as look at the ethics of experimentation, Drama can teach us to look at the character behind the rhetoric and eloquent speeches. Above all, coursework and project work teaches more than teamwork and presentation skills; it teaches us how to research and balance the various claims, how to look critically at who is writing and explaining, and what their motives are. This? Pedagogy you mean? is as important as the actual content, so that people learn to look past the emotive and sometimes the shocking elements to the trustworthiness of the content.
We’ve seen the pernicious and deadly impact that disinformation can have on people’s lives. From the war in Ukraine to the Covid pandemic, disinformation is a threat to national security. But we are not taking it seriously and we are not taking adequate steps to tackle it. Social media platforms must be made responsible for the content on their sites, politicians must be made accountable for comments they make, “inside sources” must face greater scrutiny from journalists, and we must ensure that tackling disinformation is incorporated into the curriculum. National Service was used to prepare the nation when the threat of conventional war was present; education promoting critical thinking is our preparation for disinformation at present.
Sophia Rigby is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College, London. Her research is focusing on realist-constructivist theories of international relations and how it relates to Russian foreign policy in Europe. She holds a BA in Modern Languages and a Masters focusing on Russia and Eastern Europe. Since graduating, she has been working in political strategies and communications.