The seduction of misinformation
“Elon Musk's X has disabled a feature that lets users report misinformation about elections”.
While not surprising, this disturbing piece of news illustrates more than anything the absolute madness of the contemporary world, described in the presidential speech by António Guterres at the UN Assembly on September 21 in the following terms:
“I am here to sound the alarm: The world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction…. We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes…
A surge of mistrust and misinformation is polarizing people and paralyzing societies…
This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity.
We passed the science test. But we are getting an F in Ethics….
The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. COVID and the climate crisis have exposed profound fragilities as societies and as a planet…
Yet instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges, we see hubris.
Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.
At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today: a malady of mistrust.”
At all times in our lives, we rely on trustworthy information to inform decision making. Trust is life’s most indispensable ingredient. We do not live isolated lives, whether we are prepared to acknowledge it or not, we are community beings. Even the most informed of us have limited expertise across a wide range of topics and skills necessary for basic daily living. We rely, consciously or unconsciously, on an army of others. When information becomes unreliable and trust disappears, choosing, even in service of self-interest, let alone ethically, becomes impossible. The harmonious functioning of society becomes impaired and more likely - fractured. (Britain’s Brexit debacle is a good example of choices being made based on fabricated information).
Increasingly, social media is becoming the platform of choice for information, whether it be local gossip, or information that has the potential to change national and international affairs.
We know that what passes for news often has a twitter feed as its source. Trump was banned from the use of twitter because of his false and very damaging claims. Now it is apparently the case that this significant component of social media does not consider falsehood or truth to be worthy of monitoring. Apparently, freedom of speech ‘trumps’ all other considerations.
Elon Musk is reported to be concerned about the fractured nature of American society, yet he is determined to set himself up as the greatest contributor to this fracture.
I have just returned from my first roster in support of the Yes vote at the local early polling station. While 90% of voters understandably wanted to avoid contact with either Yes or No supporters, some did stop to encourage or heckle. I must confess I find it incomprehensible that anyone could vote no. However, having listened to the heckling, it is obvious that misinformation designed to instil fear or embolden prejudice has done its work in many.
I am one of the growing number of citizens who fear for the future of democracy. Democracy is utterly dependent on citizens being provided with trustworthy information upon which they can make their choices. When false is given the same value as true, we no longer live in a society that can claim democratic identity. Part of the difficulty is the principle that both sides, or all sides, of a case need to be given equal time. This is an admirable ideal if falsehood can be readily separated from truth. However, in circumstances which we appear now to have entered in which no such demarcation is considered appropriate, then such principle is no longer desirable. The best example relates to climate change. Science has been settled for decades and if anything, prognostications based on science have been too timid. In reality there is no alternative scientific case to be put, and yet ‘climate deniers’ are still given airtime.
At the polling booth a friend came with signs in support of the No vote. He justified his actions on the basis that he believes in democracy. The No vote propaganda states the referendum Voice divides Australia and Austalians. The opposite is true. The inequality that currently besets indigenous Australians and causes economic and social division is the very thing the referendum seeks to overcome. Democracy is not served when misinformation leads good people to vote for the very thing they would otherwise have wished to overcome.
There is no easy solution to a problem that appears to be accelerating in its potential to undermine civil society as we know it. Autocrats depend on their version of truth becoming the prevailing narrative. They are jealous to protect access to, and manipulation of, platforms like twitter and TikTok. We are painfully aware of the capacity of autocratic regimes to infiltrate communication platforms. It is hardly surprising that Trump prefers the company of autocrats to the company of democratically inclined allies.
Clearly, governments like our own are reluctant to impose restrictions on media platforms for fear of censorship accusations. However, misinformation is a far greater threat to our civil, democratic society than military invasion is ever likely to be. A foreign power does not have to invade us to control us.
Long before nuclear powered submarines arrive in 30 years’ time, we have the capacity to be controlled by malign ideas and powers simply because we are too lazy to be careful about the sources of information that feed us.