The dangers of disinformation
Last week I listened to a new podcast series from BBC Radio 4 called ‘Mayday’. It tells the story of a British man, James Le Mesurier, and the Syrian volunteer rescue service known as the White Helmets, who have acted for the past six years as medical first responders to bombings in opposition-held parts of the country.
It’s a grim story, like every aspect of the vicious war in Syria. But the way the podcast approaches the issue, I think, asks a broader question of all of us in news and politics: how are our perceptions shaped by social media?
In essence the series is a warning about the dangers of disinformation at its most extreme.
Le Mesurier raised hundreds of millions of pounds for the rescuers to buy ambulances, medical equipment, tools to dig through rubble, and cameras to record all they witnessed.
World leaders described Le Mesurier and his work in heroic terms.
But he was also a hate figure online. Over the past several years Le Mesurier has been at the centre of conspiracy theories, accused of being everything from a British intelligence stooge to an organ trafficker. By sullying his name his enemies sought to cast doubt on the whole operation.
The claims were ridiculous, as were the people making them. But a network of grifters and trolls were finding an eager audience, particularly via ‘alternative media’ outlets. State propaganda broadcasters like RT boosted the signal and the cacophony surrounding Le Mesurier grew and grew and spun out of control.
Last year it all came to a head. The work was harrowing and exhausting enough without having to defend his reputation from attacks every day.
In November 2019 Le Mesurier fell to his death from his apartment building in Istanbul. Authorities and loved ones believe it was suicide. His wife says the slander he faced contributed to his sharp decline in mental health.
The story is a tragedy whichever way you look at it. But the lasting legacy is that many people – including high profile politicians -– still view the White Helmets as suspicious.
How this impression was formed should serve as a warning to the rest of us.
Experts have said that online propaganda gets mainstreamed by duping people of influence – like journalists, celebrities and elected members – into sharing it.
This is the case with any contentious issue; Syria, COVID-19, the US election, or our own day-to-day politics in Scotland.
It does so by appealing to our emotions and prejudices. It will always be the thing that feels true, that resembles the world as we see it, that tricks us.
And although we may wish to blame the manufacturers of fake news, it’s a simple truth that it can’t spread quite as far or wide without our help.
Individual claims are easy to dismiss. It seems impossible to measure the impact of one doctored image shared on Twitter, for example.
But take a step back and the cumulative effect of mis- and disinformation is apparent. A vague but widespread sense of doubt, confusion or hostility towards political opponents or authority figures.
That cynicism has always existed, but disinformation kicks the cycle of polarisation into overdrive. There are individuals and broadcasters out there focused on enflaming these tensions.
These are hardly new insights and there isn’t one solution. Social media companies are tinkering with algorithms and content labels; governments pour some of their defence billions into anti-disinformation initiatives; fact-checkers provide authoritative answers where they can.
But it seems important to remember that those of us with a platform may have the biggest share of the responsibility.
The trouble is that everybody thinks it’s someone else’s problem.