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Dear Editor: Not all misinformation is politically motivated

“A time of crisis is not the time to paint the spread of misinformation as political. Concern about the spread of misinformation, though, is valid. This is more so during a time of crisis, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, as it can seriously undermine efforts to contain the threat.

“[…] It is hard to tell whether those spreading misinformation lack trust in public agencies to provide accurate information and have, therefore, given weight to unverified sources with fragments of truth, or due to a history of tribalism, they reject reasonable steps and solutions proposed by ‘the other’.”

Photo: Man holding burning newspaper (by David Gomes from Pexels)

The following Letter to the Editor about the cause of misinformation was submitted to Wired868 by Alana Abdool:

Minister Stuart Young, in a call to the public to stop its spread, suggested that misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic was politically motivated to create a sense of panic. His statement was misplaced and will foster resentment in those unsuspecting actors who unwittingly spread misinformation.

According to the Council of Europe’s Information Disorder Report of November 2017, there are three types of information disorder: misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.

In February of this year, the Philippine National Police charged an optometrist for posting on Facebook the claim that a patient died of Covid-19at a local medical centre. The claim sparked panic and was subsequently debunked. Fabricated information like this, which is deliberately created to cause harm, is called disinformation.

Misinformation, on the other hand, is false but not created with the intent to cause harm. The third type, malinformation, is information that is based on reality and used to inflict harm.

Disinformation and malinformation turn into misinformation the moment it is passed on by an unsuspecting actor.

Photo: Fake news (by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay)

A time of crisis is not the time to paint the spread of misinformation as political. Concern about the spread of misinformation, though, is valid. This is more so during a time of crisis, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, as it can seriously undermine efforts to contain the threat.

A key reason fighting misinformation is so hard is the cultural shift towards rejecting empirically verifiable reality, or denialism. This phenomenon has taken root because of the freedom that the internet and social media sites afford it.

In The Guardian article Denialism: What drives people to reject the truth, Keith Kahn-Harris commented on the impact of denialism on the public mindset writing: “The sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy, are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.”

There are also agents who understand that the spread of disinformation and malinformation is lucrative. And even if it did not pay well, some could be in it for the sadistic or narcissistic gratification that comes from observing other people’s fear and pain.

At all times the fight against misinformation should be systematic, well planned and cognisant of the time it will take to make cultural shifts. But during a pandemic, the government must be even more aware that misinformation will be especially prevalent due to a greater sense of urgency, heightened feelings of vulnerability and a fear of losing loved ones.

Photo: A Chinese family models an acceptable dress code to operate in Trinidad’s new health hot spots.

It is also in times of crisis that the real-time power of social media is apparent. Instead of taking a confrontational approach to addressing the spread of misinformation, the government should invest their energy facing the sordid truths that have led to an environment of misinformation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has demonstrated how to use social media positively. The Whatsapp number of the WHO uses a bot that facilitates end-user selected choices for customised real-time information on Covid-19. And they are likewise able to send proactive updates to recipients directly when more current data relegate older data to misinformation.

In the same article from The Guardian, Kahn-Harris contemplates the unknowns of denialism:

“It is hard to tell whether global warming denialists are secretly longing for the chaos and pain that global warming will bring, are simply indifferent to it, or would desperately like it not to be the case … It is hard to tell whether Holocaust deniers are preparing the ground for another genocide, or want to keep a pristine image of the goodness of the Nazis and the evil of the Jews.

It is hard to tell whether an Aids denialist who works to prevent Africans from having access to antiretrovirals is getting a kick out of their power over life and death, or is on a mission to save them from the evils of the west.”

Photo: Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh (left) and National Security Minister Stuart Young discuss the novel coronavirus.

Following Kahn-Harris’ logic, the unknowns of denialism would provoke similar musings on the reasons for the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 in T&T.

It is hard to tell whether those spreading misinformation lack trust in public agencies to provide accurate information and have, therefore, given weight to unverified sources with fragments of truth, or due to a history of tribalism, they reject reasonable steps and solutions proposed by ‘the other’.

Governments would be better off, however, becoming acquainted with the power of solutions, like those used by the WHO, and taking stock that people are gradually gaining an understanding of the dynamics of information, its misuses and limits. And before they can win the battle for public trust, the transparency and accountability of public offices, their veritable machinery of trustworthiness, must be visible and running seamlessly behind any solutions.

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