Defend Truth


A real reason for the powerful to fight disinformation


William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa, Ashoka and a Linc Fellow.

Technology, the social media platforms, our algorithms, our digital policy and approaches won’t be democratic and will not serve our democracy; unless we make them.

Until recently it hasn’t been in the interest of those with power to make our digital reality work for our democracy. It has been, and largely remains the case, that profits trump (yes that person too) ethics, principle and democracy.

The good news is that the same profit motivation has helped spread one of our modern scourges and democratic threats – disinformation. While not intentional, the profit above all has helped bring us to a “post-truth” era, where some suggest facts, reality, science and evidence no longer matter.

To be clear, disinformation isn’t good news, it is a profound threat to democracy precisely because it seeks to disempower, and prevent people from knowing not just what’s true and what isn’t, but also what’s real and what isn’t.

Anti-vaccers” don’t have to offer any real counter to vaccinations, they just have to create sufficient doubt and fear that people no longer know what to believe, and are left in perpetual limbo. Disinformation undermines people’s ability to make informed choices, and to act.

So, where’s the good news here? (You’ll find out soon.) The good news is that disinformation doesn’t just undermine journalism and the news, it undermines all institutions. But it doesn’t stop there. Like any parasitic virus, it has the potential to destroy everything.

Currently, it hasn’t been used against the stock markets, for example, but how hard would it be really to create enough distrust in them that they may collapse? Once doubt is created in the basics, why should anyone believe the data of “facts” and “figures” that come from anyone? Why believe a stock exchange report over something that sets itself up to be “The Real Stock Exchange?” Or, more likely in our case, why believe an evil white imperialist bunch of companies rather than homegrown figures, where 1 plus 1 add up to 6?

It might sound far-fetched to think people could doubt “facts and figures” but once you create doubt about basic principles of science and reality, anything really is fair game. Still don’t believe me? Who would have thought that we would still have to convince people that despite overwhelming evidence showing that they work, some doubt they need measles vaccinations? Or despite the evidence from more than 10,000 scientists that climate change is real? These other institutions we take for granted can just as easily succumb.

That disinformation has the potential to undermine all institutions means that for the first time we actually have a strong argument that even those driven purely by profit and greed can understand that even their profits are under severe threat.

Journalism and news has value not just because it is essential to democracy and empowers the public, but because it can help hold those in power to account (both state and private power), and it is an essential tool in the battle against disinformation, and where done well, enables people to act, be informed and make meaningful contributions to their families and society.

Journalism and the news matters because without it there is nothing to protect even those who seek to make a profit. Sure, in the short term those who are making billions will carry on, but when anything goes, when people no longer know where to turn, why wouldn’t they just as easily turn against the profit-makers and the systems that deliver the information?

Just like climate change, big companies aren’t, for the most part, caring because they want to, but because they see in the short term their brand taking a beating for not caring and in the long term their survival at risk if they don’t. Disinformation ultimately puts the long-term survival of all institutions and entities at risk.

So, to the doorknob factions in politics, in PR and psy-ops you may win victories or help deflect from your misdeeds in the short term, but ultimately you are undermining your own sustainability, viability and existence. There are plenty of dictatorships around the world, go play with them and help them speed up their own demise.

Of course, while journalism and news media are essential for our democracy and are key weapons in combatting disinformation, they cannot and will not survive on their own. Fact-checking is a critical tool against disinformation, but we need more. We need a credible public broadcaster to serve as a talisman for credible journalism. We are getting there slowly but steadily and at the moment there is much promise. We also need an informed public that can act against disinformation. We also need to acknowledge that combatting disinformation isn’t just a problem for the platforms, or government, or the media, or the public, it is a problem for all of us and the only way we stand any meaningful chance against it is if we adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to combatting it.

It is why we have relaunched Real411. It offers a meaningful response of raising awareness, reporting and acting against disinformation in a manner that is in line with our democracy and media freedom. See here for more. DM


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