Notes on disinformation, for a panel discussion on the “Role of Journalists in the Context of Information Disorder and Digital Literacy,” at the Maintaining Credibility and Trust in Journalism collaborative workshop in Bangkok, March 22, 2019:
There is much to be said. Let me just focus on four points. These are not so much direct answers to the main question, about the role of journalists, but rather considerations we need to bear in mind when we attempt to give our answers.
First, it is good to have forums like this. An Asian perspective on disinformation is useful and necessary in several ways. As I have written elsewhere [in a paper that is still being prepared for publication]: “It can highlight the aggressive use of disinformation in the region’s history of colonialism, and … prove that disinformation was a preferred weapon of colonizing forces; it can help correct the America-centric focus of much of the existing literature, by demonstrating a greater variety in the scale and impact of disinformation in different media ecosystems; it can help focus attention on the fatal consequences of ‘fake news.’ Above all, an Asian perspective can help underline the role digital disinformation plays in hastening democratic decay.”
Second, in fighting back against fake news and other forms of disinformation, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. I find the definitions crafted by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan most useful, “in part because they are the result of a lengthy and rigorous process of research and revision and reasoning, and in part because the definitions make intuitive sense.” Thus:
- “Mis-information is when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.”
- “Dis-information is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.”
- “Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere.”
To these definitions, and if you will allow me, I would like to add my own definition of “fake news.” I realize it’s a contested concept, and some of my own colleagues do not think it is even possible to define something so elusive, and not worth the time. My definition of “fake news” is based on the 3 Ds: “It is a deliberate act of fabrication and manipulation; disguised to look, sound, feel like the news; designed to deceive.” Deliberate, deceptive, disguised as news.
Third, we should be careful about limiting the problem of disinformation to the digital space alone. In many parts of Asia, lies and disinformation still travel the old routes. Allow me to give only one example. I have elsewhere noted that: “The latest We Are Social report, released in January 2019, estimates that some 76 million people in the Philippines are connected to the Internet; that’s a 70-percent internet penetration rate. Impressive, but consider the number who are NOT internet-connected. The estimate is at least 30 million people—that’s equivalent to the total population of New Zealand AND Australia, combined. To focus only on the manipulation of digital and social media in the Philippines is to ignore the impact of other media, especially TV and radio, on a large number of Filipinos.” I think the same can be said for other parts of our region.
Fourth, what should we do when government is the main source of disinformation? In most countries, government media resources dwarf those of privately owned media; in many, government media institutions dominate the media landscape; in some, these different platforms and channels are used to shape an alternative reality. As I have written before: “the democratic ideal is not merely consent by the governed, but rather informed consent. [Disinformation] threatens this ideal by seeding the community of the governed with lies and falsehoods, and because of this diet eventually stunting our growth as moral, reasonable, responsible citizens. Hannah Arendt sounded the alarm half a century ago: ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is … people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.’
My four points, in sum: We need specifically Asian perspectives on disinformation. We must build a common language to address the problem. We must not limit the problem of disinformation to the digital space alone. And we need to understand that governments can and do benefit greatly from disinformation.