We live in a world of information. Some philosophers and scientists believe that information constitutes the foundation of reality more than what we know through our senses or in the objects that surround us. But as elegant as the patterns of the universe may seem, whether it be made up of information, material substance, or some other form of energy, we cannot take for granted how perfect it may be. When information misfires, what we call “misinformation,” the universe, in a sense, expresses its imperfection. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Without misinformation we wouldn’t be here. Evolution depends on mutations, a form of misinformation, to take place. But when the disconnection between information sent and information intended is deliberate, misinformation is cloaked by what we call deceit. Disinformation, the topic of this blog, occurs when information is deliberately "miscommunicated" to deceive its intended target and obviously this is never good news to those standing as receiver at the other end of the line.
Where Did Disinformation Begin?
When it occurs at a personal level, disinformation is called prevarication, or simply put, “lying,” which we can assume has been around as long as we humans have. Even other species, those who use decoys and deceptive strategies to capture or elude adversaries, use disinformation. They are the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” so to speak. But, according to Thomas Rid, in his book, Active measures: The secret history of disinformation and political warfare (2020), the term, “disinformation,” originated during the Cold War when the Soviet Union disseminated false information in the press and by radio to influence public opinion. So, disinformation is basically deception, or lying, that assumed status as a term of separate distinction when the technology of modern civilization became advanced enough so that it can be used on a broader scale to enhance political warfare.
"Disinformation," conceptually speaking, is sometimes confused or used interchangeably with other, related terms popularized in politics and the media. In a brief written for the International Forum for Democratic Studies, titled, Distinguishing disinformation from propaganda, misinformation, and “fake news,” by Dean Jackson, propaganda, a term often associated with Nazi Germany that originated several centuries ago, is defined as the use of “non-rational arguments to either advance or discredit a political ideal.” Disinformation, on the other hand, always involves false information, in whole or part, often using a “one-two punch” of both dismissing and distracting from an adversary’s claims, in order to further a political agenda. By contrast, “fake news” originated on the internet, especially with the proliferation of social media, using algorithms designed to amplify content-driven information to target audiences in order to promote products or conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
Distortions of Truth
Disinformation relies on our innate tendency to distort truth because of an overconfidence in our ability to discern it. In his best-seller, Thinking, fast and slow (2011), Nobel-prize laureate, Daniel Kahneman, delineated the many common ways people confuse logic with distorted beliefs, also known as cognitive biases. For example, according to Kahneman’s “availability heuristic,” people are more fearful of dying in a plane than automobile crash, even though the latter is much more likely, because plane crashes are sensationalized in the news, or climate change isn’t given the seriousness it deserves because its effects are incremental rather than affecting us on a day-to-day basis. As long ago as the 16th century, philosopher, Francis Bacon introduced a set of principles to guide modern science away from these kinds of biases inherent to human nature. One of these, called The Idols of the Tribe, is known today as “confirmation bias,” which, according to authors Caitlin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall (The misinformation age: How false beliefs spread, 2018), contributes to the proliferation of false information disseminated on the internet.
In this information-saturated world we live in today, content competes for our attention as if in a Darwinian race to influence our consciousness. In the span of little more than half a century news broadcasts in the media have transformed from the straightforward, stolid deliveries of avuncular newscasters such as Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, to the hyperbole that begin each local newscast with “Here’s what’s Breaking!” followed by a report about a "news" event of little consequence. Today many "news" broadcasts have degraded into fractious, tribal polemics that no longer resemble news at all anymore.
According to author, Richard Hasen (How disinformation poisons our politics—and how to cure it, 2022), the media have “cheapened” speech. Desensitization takes place when we become saturated with information such that it takes more hyperbole to capture our interest and news degrades into a fetishization for more graphic detail of an either violent or lurid nature. Likewise, divisiveness ensues when information is amplified within an echo chamber that incites emotions to further its cause rather than seek open-minded dialog. I would agree with the author, Hasen, who recommends greater efforts to moderate media content in order to help remedy this problem, a solution that contravenes one of Elon Musk’s purported reasons for acquiring the media platform, Twitter, viz., to free the dissemination of information from “censorship.” Opting for the word, “curating,” instead, as one author once put it, it isn’t censorship anymore when its objective is used to bring sensibility and reason back into play.
Disinformation as a Psychological and Political Tool
Disinformation, the deliberate use of information to confuse and manipulate others, has been the subject of study by those in anthropology (e.g., Gregory Bateson’s double-bind theory of schizophrenia), psychiatry (e.g., R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry movement), in literature (e.g., George Orwell’s classics, Animal Farm and 1984), and in political philosophy (e.g., Michel Foucault’s Madness and civilization, 1961). It has also inspired the development of a separate school of philosophy, known as “critical theory,” which has gained notoriety recently within the United States as a source of racial adversarial debate. In his book, The revenge of power: How autocrats are reinventing politics for the 21st century (2022) author, Moises Naim, cites the writings of the mid-20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, on totalitarian societies, in positing that we are living today in a “culture of post-truth” where there is no longer “a truth.” Naim’s dystopian vision depicts a society evolving toward a proliferation of disinformation that serves to undermine our ability to rely on our own judgments thus rendering us more susceptible to deceit and manipulation with nefarious intentions.
How to Counter Disinformation
Most people who are susceptible to disinformation rely on a very limited source for their viewpoints. They rely on half-truths, heresay, and opinions rather than more reliable sources in the scientific literature. They become identified with these beliefs such that to challenge them would be tantamount to an attack on their identity itself. Rather than challenge their beliefs head on, engaging with their reasoning process in order to understand the logic behind their beliefs may help to establish a dialog that fosters civil and reasoned discussion as opposed to simple contradiction. Set your goals modestly. In other words, try to understand their point of view and the reasons behind it rather than investing in persuading them to agree with you. When challenging their beliefs, offer a counter-argument as a plausible alternative explanation to consider rather than as an attack on their belief in itself. Remember, your purpose in challenging disinformation is to create open-mindedness when discussing controversial topics, not to win a contest.
Robert Hamm Ph.D