By Erix Axner-Norrman
There has always been disinformation. It is even difficult to say, let alone to prove, that there is more disinformation now than previously in history. Most of us hold some untruth to be true, whether it be a thing of little importance or a matter of great concern to us. However, as we nowadays live much of our lives online, we interact with information that is instantly obtained not only by us but by anyone with a relatively stable Internet connection. Much disinformation is spread by accident, some by sheer ignorance (often labeled as misinformation), yet other times in deliberate attempts at trying to disrupt and unlawfully influence political processes and undermine the credibility of societal institutions. Regardless, the end results are much the same: confusion, irritation, and distrust, often towards the perceived “other”, which might be another country, another ethnic group, or domestic political adversaries.
Just as propaganda is not a bad thing by definition, nor is insurgency wrong per se. It can both be justified and in some cases even needed, but fueled by false beliefs under wrong pretenses, the consequences for democratic nations, in particular, can be truly disastrous. The age of autocratic regimes in the West banning and even burning literature deemed forbidden for the (largely illiterate) masses is a far cry from this digital, open-sourced age of ours. Even a supposedly “enlightened” monarch such as Frederick the Great of Prussia burned some of his on-and-off friend Voltaire’s published writings. It is often said that we live in the midst of a so-called infodemic, where information of all sorts floods our consciousness. In the most extreme cases, false information can make us doubt even the validity of age-old truths. Even more difficult, as there is not just one narrative, but many. One big and global lie will not do half as much damage as several smaller, opposing ones. So, acknowledging that this is a problem and that it will likely become a still bigger one in the near future, what to do about it? Other than just protecting the general public from the possible threats to their security, can those who are misinformed be helped?
One thing that is known by trial and error not to work is pointing fingers, ostracising and denouncing the misled as mere featherbrained fools; this simply exacerbates the feeling that they are right in their misconceptions. Often, confronting falsehood with facts is not very effective either. No matter the overwhelming evidence presented, a fundamentalistic Trump supporter will most likely not be persuaded to give up believing that the 2020 American presidential election was rigged and crooked. Emotions more often trump reason than we might like to recognise— if you excuse the pun. A somewhat controversial method that has been used lately in Europe when dealing mainly with Islamic and to a lesser extent right-wing terrorists, convicted and potential alike, is a program of de-radicalisation. Perhaps, it is really better phrased as a re-indoctrination back into modern, liberal and chiefly Western ideas and ideals. Although it would be immensely beneficial to have everyone convinced of the greatness of an open democracy, that kind of unity of thought is obviously a pipe dream. If expanded to include those who are not as directly dangerous as gunmen, bombers and arsonists, could and should forced indoctrination of the truth be used in cases where belief in disinformation and conspiracy theories may cause harm?
The practical as well as moral implications of such involuntary actions, unsettlingly similar to brainwashing, is obvious and begs questions in the style of: is it worth protecting the stability of democracy if the freedom of thought is being suppressed? In a democracy, it is the entitlement of the individual or a group of individuals to be on a collision course with society at large, as long as neither side resorts to unwarranted violence against the other. Modern democracy itself was largely established this way. As previously mentioned, there is little use in denying that there is a genuine charm with being at war with reality. Standing up for one’s beliefs and convictions however hopeless it may seem is by all accounts still held as a virtue worldwide. Coercion is rarely the best way of getting good results and forcing conformity or applying indoctrination carries with it too many disconcerting associations to what it is any self-respecting elective government wants to identify itself with. Once firmly in place, the power to think freely is a power that cannot be harnessed from above with ease. Yet the issue at hand remains; that of how we collectively deal with the surge of available dishonest information at every level, in every corner of daily life.
All alarmism aside, the best manner in which to tackle this growing problem with disinformation is to focus our attention on those who are actively creating and spreading disinformation, and even more so, those who pay for the disinformation to be created and spread. The flipside to social media is that, aided by algorithms and filter bubbles, we are easily targeted for dubious campaigns based on our observed preferences and inclinations so much so as we need never to be confronted with different worldviews and opinions from our own. Thus a perfect breeding ground for polarisation is generated and becomes a huge asset to anyone who seeks to profit from a divisive society. If a punishment for this development needs to be administered, those profiteers are the ones who should feel the lashes of the whip, not those duped by the deception. Only then are we judicially striking at the root of this problem. Unfortunately, in many countries all across the globe, the ones who could make justice happen are the exact same who are profiting immensely from the disruption and the chaos that disinformation brings forth. Taking on this issue seriously is sadly no fair fight and as there is no certainty in how the situation concerning the rampant advancement of digital disinformation will evolve— only that it will surely continue— makes for an unsettling start as we perhaps unknowingly have entered into yet a new age; that of the well-informed but also the misinformed citizen.