How to fight disinformation
The explosion of information in the 21st century that allowed access to facts, the free-flowing exchange of ideas, and improvements in the human condition spawned not a few serious consequences. One of them is the problem of misinformation — when information shared is incorrect or inaccurate even if the sender honestly believes it to be true: for example, that there will be a major sale at a store, but which turns out to be untrue.
A bigger issue is disinformation—when information is intentionally made or designed to fool and to mislead. This deliberateness is a particular form of evil, because its spread gives credence and drives people to belief or action. In the context of the pandemic, this has led to vaccine skepticism and vaccine hesitancy as major obstacles to increased vaccination rates for herd immunity.
Among the false stories that have circulated are that vaccines can turn people into zombies, they may make couples infertile or children autistic, that there are dangerous ingredients harmful to the human body, the vaccination campaign is a tool of the elite to control the masses, and all of this is a grand conspiracy of Big Pharma.
There are sectors that refuse to be vaccinated on political or religious beliefs; there are still others who listen to quack or witch doctors or populist leaders. The common thread in all these allegations is they are all not grounded on science or medical facts that are painstakingly tested and proven. A very simple counterpoint is that most everyone would have been vaccinated as babies against polio, measles, chicken pox, and a host of other preventable diseases.
In the electoral season, disinformation is not only done by individuals, but is turned into a commercialized operation with candidates hiring groups to use fake accounts to smear opponents. Troll farms or armies are known to exist in the country or to operate in nearby states, directed to influencing electoral results.
Misinformation and disinformation are a pandemic in their own right. There are several ways to fight this plague. Educating cyber citizens is always the best approach, but not the fastest or easiest thing to do. Like any long-term investment, it requires time, effort, patience, and resources to be able to reap an informed and thinking society in the online world.
Education can be divided into advocacies that can be more manageable. For example, the campaign against child sexual exploitation has seen successful results; there is no argument against penalizing pedophiles and sex predators. For COVID-19, a project should be in place to continuously relay the message that vaccines are safe for the overwhelming majority of the population. For candidates for public office, meanwhile, voters should make it their mission to consistently check the track record of each candidate versus their claims.
Another best practice is to push for change in the policies of technology companies that run platforms. Already, reforms are being undertaken at Twitter and Facebook to not take a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to the content in their systems. Google has also banned political advertising for the 2022 election season. Netizens can join organizations with the objective of calling out tech practices that are harmful, because these platforms provide the main channels for misinformation and disinformation.
Vaccination is not only against diseases. There can be a targeted effort toward “information inoculation,” because even a small exposure to accurate news of any kind can be effective. This means that using the same avenues of mischief being used nowadays, verified facts of science and medicine, and accurate representations of public servants, can be disseminated to warn the public about the coming misinformation. This way, they will not be as susceptible to believing the falsities and lies.
There are administrative responses that can be developed by regulators of the tech industry. There is increasing recognition of the need to define and punish disinformation; laws are being passed to counter this modern crime. But, as with all laws, the effort requires a systematic and expertise-driven endeavor to put it all together. Disinformation need not be a scourge that we have to live with like another pandemic.
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Geronimo L. Sy is a former assistant secretary of the Department of Justice.
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