Fight disinformation, but don’t expect to beat it

EARLY this week, a group of 18 business associations in the Philippines released a joint statement denouncing the spread of “disinformation and hate speech” on social media and other platforms.

The epidemic of various forms of intentional and unintentional misinformation is universally recognized, and the backlash against it has been escalating for some time. Those who actually try to stop it, however, seem to be fighting a losing battle.

I think there are several reasons for this, the main one being that although people are exposed to “bad information” every day, few are able to recognize it. Even if they are able to recognize it, it is human nature not to reject it. And finally, as we have seen with the examples of some well-known platforms like Facebook or Fox News, there is a powerful incentive to cultivate it.

First, let’s consider what the business groups said in their joint statement. “Along with other members of society, the business community has observed with concern how social media, media and other platforms have been abused by many parties in recent years. They have been used to spread disinformation and hate speech, resulting in mistaken beliefs, confusion and division, ”the statement began.

The main concern of the groups is the inevitable effect of abuses such as “lies, personal attacks, trolling, misogyny,” Red-tagging “and many others” will have during the already controversial election campaign, but given the deep penetration of all forms of media into everyday life is a universal problem. The joint statement offered two substantive recommendations to help combat the problem. I’ll get to that in a moment, because in order for them to work we must first address the larger issues of the lack of knowledge about what constitutes bad or abusive information, and the reluctance to accept that knowledge even when it is. are available .

“Misinformation”, the term that correctly encompasses everything we are talking about here, is “information that is not accurate”. It can either be completely false or to some extent true but compromised by the way it is presented. Disinformation can be very damaging, but it does not necessarily represent prejudicial intent on the part of the source thereof. When it is intended to cause harm, then it is “disinformation”.

Misinformation spreads so easily and is so hard to stop because we humans are intellectually rather primitive: we are very uncomfortable not knowing the answers to things; we refuse to accept any response that exceeds whatever our individual capacity to understand it; and we love the attention of others. Misinformation spreads because some recognize these general characteristics of people and take advantage of them for their own ends, which may or may not be malicious.

Now back to what the business groups asked for in their statement. First, they called on media platforms to make an effort to stop the spread of disinformation and provide clear and transparent explanations of how they were doing it. Second, they called on companies – particularly speaking to members of their various trade associations – to more carefully assess how the media platforms they use for marketing and public communications handle disinformation in order to avoid perpetuate the problem and therefore potentially damage their own reputation and credibility.

It’s perfectly fine, but it’s also very idealistic. Despite what we can say about ourselves, and maybe even honestly believe, those of us in the media business are inevitably in the realm of disinformation. Our livelihood depends on selling a product in a competitive market, for income that is measured almost literally in eyeballs, and because people are who they are (see above), that product must be manipulated to attract the largest possible audience.

This certainly doesn’t mean that we intentionally publish lies – at least most of us don’t – because we understand that what we do can easily be abusive and therefore, honestly try to uphold the standards of fairness. and accuracy (which we created for ourselves). But that inevitably means that almost nothing we publish is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. From what stories are published, the angle they are written in and the language used, to where they are placed on a page and presented visually are all carefully chosen to elicit the strongest emotional response possible of a reader, get them to come back for more, and maybe more importantly, tell others about it so that our audience grows.

From the perspective of a business trying to educate as many potential customers as possible about its products or services, it would be irrational, if not somewhat irresponsible, not to use the most effective platforms available to do so. At a very basic level, for businesses, requiring media platforms to ‘fight disinformation’ is tantamount to requiring media companies to ignore the demand for their products, which would shrink their audience, making these platforms less useful for business needs.

I don’t believe there is a “solution” to all of this unless you change some part of the fundamental nature of the human mind. Media platforms and businesses can tackle the most obvious and blatant examples of misinformation and disinformation – for example, by avoiding and ridiculing the Fox News, The Epoch Times, OAN and Issues and Insights types – and individual news. that consumers can make an effort to postulate skepticism and expand their range of information sources. But it will always be a difficult battle, and ultimately impossible to win; the best we can hope for is to avoid losing by continuing the battle.

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Twitter: @benkritz

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