I’m telling you a lie in a vicious effort that you will repeat my lie over and over until it becomes true. Lady Gaga
There are longer, but no more compelling, characterizations of the scourge of disinformation – so serious that the sitting President of the United States brought up the subject just this week – notably at a joint press conference with German President Angela Merkel. In that meeting President Obama spoke of the perils of “active disinformation, very well presented.”
The heart of the matter, the President said, is that, “if we are not serious about the facts, about what is true and what is not, and especially at the time of social networks, when so many people receive the information in one sentence on their phone, if we cannot tell the difference between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have a problem.”
The power, influence and tenacity of disinformation is evident – everyone has a story of having been duped, even having shared or acted on a kernel of disinformation planted with malice aforethought to skew public perception and action. We are conditioned to believe what we read or see, particularly if the information is well presented by “credentialed” spokesperson and/or, better yet, backed up by inscrutable, and thus infallible, metrics.
Disinformation is no respecter of receiver: Did any of us believe, if just for a minute, that Pope Francis favored a presidential candidate in the recent election? Or that that climate change might be just an overblown theory? or that the CIA was somehow behind the Malayzia Airline crash? Or that Ford Motors was planning a major move to Mexico?
Back in the pre-social media day the term “information literacy” was fashioned to put a name on an emerging Information Age challenge. Last month we even offered a hasty nod to Information Literacy Month. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/information-literacy-universal-challenge-of-the-digital-era/
The fact is that efforts to build information literacy skills lag far behind the ubiquity, fluidity and instant gratification of social media. Far more insidious is the harsh reality that the wizards of disinformation have mastered the tools to manufacture palatable lies, to present the fake information in irresistible nibbles, to package propaganda a fact — then “repeat the lie over and over until it becomes true.”
For me the spark of hope that springs eternal ignites when Gaga and Obama sound the same alarm – that the power of disinformation is real, pervasive and a threat to this democracy.
The forefathers established a nation built on the premise of an engaged citizenry. Informed voters (as narrowly defined by the white men who wrote the rules,) would have access to information by and about their government and the skills to consider both the source and the content of information. Relevant, valid information would be communicated to the citizenry not in 140 character blips but in pamphlets, newspapers, orations, even books! http://www.constitutionfacts.com/founders-library/founders-reading-list/
Disinformation is hardly a new idea. In 1710 Jonathan Swift penned The Art of Political Lying” in which he expressed his dim view of fake information:
Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.