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The next great disinformation panic

Journalists gain trust by trusting the public

Artillery Row

The first great disinformation panic started roughly around 2016 and lasted right up until the present day. Every time you logged on to your social media, you were at risk. Your vegetative scroll through the timeline became a multi-million pound information defence operation aimed at countering “fake news” and “disinformation”.

In the space of just half a decade, an entire new infrastructure of media was set up to tackle this grave threat to Western societies. “Expert” NGOs signed lucrative contracts with government departments and social media companies. Philanthropic donors, from Google to Bill Gates, pumped money into “not for profit” newsrooms to garner audience trust around issues that were supposedly being wrecked by this age of fake news and misinformation.

Except, like Baudrillard’s Gulf War, there’s no evidence that the first great disinformation panic ever actually took place. It was there in the media, with endless reports on the existential threat it posed to truth in the digital age. The latest academic research (if we can even trust that anymore) suggests that beyond the screens its impact was minimal, however.

Disinformation was about marketing yourself as an authority in a chaotic world

Electorates were not swayed by a vast campaign of Russian disinformation via Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, the very threat of mis/disinformation seems to have been driven by misguided paranoia. As one study shows, the threat of dis/misinformation is largely based on the perceived gullibility of people not closely related to you. Another recent Cambridge study did not find any direct correlation between “misinformation” and misbehaviour stemming from it in the real world. Most damning of the research was by the Harvard Kennedy School of Misinformation, which found that initiatives to tackle mis/disinformation were largely a waste of time in improving “the global information score”, when compared to the far more effective measure of “increasing trust in reliable news source”.

Despite all this, the second great disinformation panic is about to get underway. Unsurprisingly, “AI” is now the biggest worry. Already there has been a fire at the pentagon, a false Joe Biden White House briefing and a panic about the possibility of the technology triggering nuclear war. Beyond all this, the real worry is whether it might finally drive mainstream journalism, and indeed us, completely insane.

Disinformation is no longer really about “fact checking”. It’s a brand — a marketing tool. Since the pandemic, it has lost interest in determining the truth via the methodology of “disinformation”, having found out the task was both impossible and doomed to hypocrisy. Unsurprisingly, a definition of determining wrong information around “information intended to mislead” ended up getting abused by its many practitioners. During the pandemic, the amount of evidence we now have of the inaccurate labelling of perfectly legitimate information as “misinformation” means that the only serious debate is whether this amounted to a form of censorship.

Much of the debate around censorship, however, has ignored the far more damaging influence that the rise of “dis/misinformation” and “fact checking” journalism has had on our discourse. The greatest crisis of trust was created by the very obsession with a world of “harmful information” beyond the paywalls and newsdesks of established media. Tackling disinformation was never really about informing the public; it was about marketing yourself as an authority in a chaotic world.

Upon this was built a flimsy system of trust. Of course, just as much as the rest of us, established news outlets are guilty of “misinformation”. Yes, there are degrees to this, but in failing to ever acknowledge the universal fallibility of anyone involved in the difficult task of trying to understand today’s world, the online discourse became a zero sum of who was guilty of spreading the worst misinformation. Many a conspiracy grifter was born from this cynical axiom. In many ways we all became victims of this. In obsessing over fake news and misinformation, interest in the news cycle became less about the truth, and more a joust of moral outrage around who was spreading the more “harmful” lies.

Despite this, the toxic disinformation brand of journalism in the age of AI is one clearly set to persist. If you can’t get people to trust a source of news through their own intuition, there’s always the hope of hiring an NGO of experts to tell you otherwise. The Global Disinformation Index, a British based company, demonstrated this in a recent report by crunching the numbers to declare the New York Times to have the most “minimum risk” in spreading bad information. Apparently it forgot to include the Columbia School of Journalism’s recent damning verdict of its coverage of the Russiagate scandal.

Misinformation ultimately helps people become savvier and more attuned

Journalists are repeating this marketing of news via the threat of disinformation, too. This curious logic, that “dis/misinformation” is to blame for declining levels of trust in media, plays out in conferences across the world, turning journalists into paranoid husks obsessed with the terrifying world of fake news that has come to dictate their profession. “We need to pre-bunk, we need to anticipate what misinformation and lies are going to be coming our way,” said Brian Stelter at a recent Reuters Institute panel on trust in journalism. Deborah Turness, the CEO of BBC News also linked the issue of trust to the rise of AI generated fake news, painting a world in which “seeing is no longer believing”. Now we have “BBC Verify” — a service that seeks to create “transparency” with audiences by revealing to them the inner workings of BBC journalism in the age of AI.

As with the ending of the Wizard of Oz, the experience of finding out who pulls the levers behind the BBC news site might be a little disappointing.

It is also likely to be a complete waste of time. With a significant allocation of resources to this scheme, it looks set to perpetuate the false struggle against “fake news”, started by the age of disinformation. The dilemma now is this: the more these news organisations fret over the new age of AI driven disinformation, the more they may end up themselves lost in the false worlds they intend to create.

As the Substacker Gurwinder rightly points, the spread of misinformation doesn’t necessarily obscure the truth. It ultimately helps people become savvier and more attuned to the reality of a “dishonest world” which of course has many sources. The old model of news, where an audience relied on a few outlets, is dead. Instead, a complicated ecosystem of information reflects a complicated world. Pretend otherwise, try to draw a simple binary between the world of goods news and the world of the bad, and your audience will go elsewhere.

Ultimately, you cannot determine a picture of reality, by focusing on the debunking of false truth. Trust is built up by appearing to trust the public with enough information to determine the truth for themselves. If the age of disinformation has betrayed one thing, it’s a fundamental mistrust of the public to do precisely this. Restoring trust in media outlets will not be achieved by a continuation of the war against “disinformation”, but instead an honest assessment of a complicated world, in which the facts are complex, evolving and dependent on all sorts of different contexts. Acknowledging, and indeed reporting on this is a far harder task than merely telling us what isn’t real.

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