The information war we are living through, heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, has grown to the point where it too is considered a pandemic — an infodemic. But the term infodemic implies the information war is a disease that must be eradicated, without acknowledging that inherent to the war is the contestation of ideas.
There’s a similar problem with the term “fake news”. Branding something fake news implies the article as a whole is fake, but that is not how propaganda functions. Propaganda buries disinformation among factual information to make the disinformation more believable.
In August 2019 the Global Disinformation Index published a report by Ben Decker, of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre for Media, Politics and Public Policy, titled Adversarial Narratives: A New Model for Disinformation. He argued that disinformation agents are able to create “adversarial narratives” that contain “seeds of factual information”, are less “overtly fabricated” and act to inflame social tensions.
Using the Stop 5G disinformation campaign as a case study, he illustrates how once you travel away from the original source of the disinformation campaign the fabricated conspiracy elements start to be attached.
Decker tracks the Stop 5G campaign originally from a YouTube video in 2016, through a Twitter campaign and various encounters with conspiracy theorists to the moment when, on 21 May 2019, Fox News host Tucker Carlson questioned whether 5G was medically safe.
Decker argues this was the moment of mainstream attention that an adversarial narrative such as Stop 5G craves.
He shows how Carlson’s mainstreaming of the narrative coincided with 124 Facebook pages, which had previously been used to spread 5G disinformation, suddenly upping the ante, going from 211 posts a week to 1 019.
The Facebook pages’ membership numbers increased eight times in the same week, making it clear that Carlson had turbocharged the disinformation campaign’s reach on social media.
By January this year South Africans were destroying 5G towers in KwaZulu-Natal, after the 5G campaign had been linked to Covid-19 in numerous conspiracy theories.
Many would have remained unaware of the 5G campaign until it attached itself to Covid-19, even though its origin story predates the pandemic by three years.
If you have consumed any of the content from the Covid-19 disinformation campaigns in the past year then you will have noticed how the pandemic appears to have united a motley crew of anti-vaxxers, fundamentalist Christians, anti-Semites, staunch libertarians, anti-lockdown protestors and what has become a global alt-right, rather than an American one.
What we must remember, when seeing these strange bedfellows all singing from the same hymn book, is the overlap between these groups existed long before Covid-19 arrived; the relationships are just more visible to us now.
Disinformation is here to stay
A few weeks ago The Guardian reported on 56 fake Twitter accounts that had been used in a fight-back against complaints from workers and unions about the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses. The users of these Twitter accounts had pretended to be Amazon employees and had used fake Amazon Ambassador accounts.
This story is a reminder that disinformation is not only a manipulation strategy reserved for conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and right-wingers, it is an ever-present part of the world we live in. Disinformation is a manipulation strategy that has wormed its way into corporates, political parties, governments, intelligence agencies, media organisations and nongovernmental organisations.
Skewering the conspiracy theorists or anti-vaxxers for disinformation is like blaming violence in society on video games or teenage suicide on Ozzy Osbourne.
It was only a few years ago that South Africa was caught in its own ideological warfare — when the narratives of state capture and white monopoly capital did battle. In the heat of that ideological war, one could look at the media’s coverage of the so-called rogue unit in the South African Revenue Service as an example of how it too was caught up in disinformation campaigns being run out of the government and intelligence agencies.
Looking abroad, the White House was, just a few months ago, occupied by Donald Trump, who repeatedly lied from the moment he took office.
Disinformation is here to stay and a major reason for this is it has been turbo-charged by social media algorithms.
Rise of surveillance capitalism
In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, academic Shoshana Zuboff argues that the digital era has offered the tools to shift the focus of consumption from the mass to the individual.
She says that surveillance capitalists claim human experience as a “free raw material” for translation into “behavioural data”, which is fed into “machine intelligence” to create “prediction products” for their clients, which are not us, the user.
“The essence of the exploitation here is the rendering of our lives as behavioural data for the sake of others’ improved control over us,” writes Zuboff. “Surveillance capitalism is profoundly undemocratic, but its remarkable power does not originate in the state, as has historically been the case.”
She says the surveillance capitalists make up a “data priesthood”, who have instated a “coup from above” — not an overthrow of state sovereignty, but of the people’s individual sovereignty.
Instead of protecting citizens from this new form of mutant capitalism, most government responses have been to cuddle up to the data priests and use their masses of data to help win elections.
As Zuboff points out, between 2012 and 2016, 22 officials from the White House left to work at Google and 31 officials left Google to work at the White House or federal advisory boards that have a direct relation to Google’s business.
We need to also acknowledge that this form of mutant capitalism has spread far beyond big tech companies; every bank, insurance company, supermarket, mobile phone operator by now has their own surveillance capitalism strategy in place.
Surveillance capitalism is the new business model.
Outrage machine and profit
The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report, which surveyed 33 000 individuals in 27 countries between October and November last year, states that only 26% of respondents could be considered to have good information hygiene, 35% had moderate and 39% had poor hygiene.
The report stated that 6% of respondents said they would only need to see information once on their social media feeds to believe that it was true and 33%, said they would believe the information after seeing it a couple of times.
Statistics like this show that more and more citizens around the world are relying on social media feeds for their news and information.
The algorithms, which manipulate feeds, result in entrenched echo chambers where the users’ views are merely reflected back at them.
The other element to social media news feeds that must be considered is the outrage machine.
Social media algorithms manipulate users’ emotions by playing on their fears and anger — an angry user is an involved user and an involved user is a revenue spinner.
We live in a world where social media is at the heart of how we go about our daily lives and how we contest ideas.
Our fight should be with all forms of social-media manipulation, regardless of whether the imperative is to sell you a car, a new pair of shoes, a conspiracy theory or a political ideology.
The rise of disinformation is occurring at the time when, globally, public confidence levels in governments and media are at record lows.
The Edelman Trust Barometer has an interesting timeline of trust, mapping the years from 2001 to 2021, with a phrase attached to each year to signify the major developments or changes in trust levels.
The year 2017 is tagged “trust in crisis” and 2018 “battle for the truth”, while 2021 has the tag “declaring information bankruptcy”.
The report argues that the Covid-19 pandemic has “put trust to the test” and that trust in all information sources is at “record lows”.
The report makes it clear that citizens’ levels of mistrust in governments, media and big business have risen during the pandemic, a time of greater authoritarianism and little transparency. It found that 57% of respondents believe their governments purposely try to mislead them, 56% feel the same about business leaders. Media organisations are even less trusted; 59% believe the media will purposefully try to mislead them and also said most news outlets are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public; 61% believe the media is not objective and non-partisan.
Paywalls and trust in SA
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, South Africa’s trust index rose by four points between 2020 and 2021, which meant we went from the fourth worst trust index out of 27 countries to eighth worst, tying with the US.
South Africa, at 21%, also has the second highest rate of “trust inequality”, with only Australia being more unequal at 22%.
Trust inequality is the measure of difference in trust levels between the “informed public” (respondents with a tertiary education and among the top 25% earners for their age group) and the “mass population” (basically everyone else).
What this means is “informed” South Africans enjoy a class privilege that allows them to be more trusting of government, the media and big business because they are better informed. It comes down to access to information, an area where South African citizens are being failed.
The Global Disinformation Index released a risk ratings report for South Africa in February, which assessed 35 of South Africa’s most viewed news websites between March and October last year. The top three media websites were the sabcnews.com, news24.com and fin24.com, which were awarded near perfect scores, meaning they posed a minimum risk for disinformation.
Another 15 of the South African news sites were rated low risk, six websites were rated as high risk and four as maximum risk. These websites were not named.
The report points out that of the 35 websites assessed, 17 provided no transparency regarding where they got their funding, 14 provided no transparency regarding the owners and eight websites provided no operational information at all.
The report points out that many of the high- and maximum-risk rated websites “publish biased content” aimed at manipulating the audience and that these sites published stories not covered by other outlets, at times as exclusive investigative stories.
What this means is paywalls keep real journalism away from those who can’t afford it, which results in most South Africans consuming news on websites that are disinformation risks.
‘The truth is scary as hell’
If you don’t trust your government, the media or business leaders and you are using social media as a significant means of information and news, and that social media feed is being manipulated to a surveillance capitalist’s own ends, then it’s not hard to see how you might be ripe for the picking when a disinformation campaign comes along.
If we are going to combat this problem then surveillance capitalists, governments, big business and the media must commit to real soul-searching about the role they playing creating such a trust deficit.
At a time where trust has been put to the test, remember how vulnerable people are feeling during the pandemic and how susceptible this makes them to disinformation.
In researching this article I kept coming back to something a American woman with the pseudonym Jennifer said in a January 2021 Cosmopolitan article headlined “The unlikely connection between wellness influencers and the pro-Trump rioters”. Jennifer, who had recently lost her job, had been increasingly exposed to Covid-19 disinformation through social media channels that focused on wellness. She found herself drawn into the grips of the QAnon conspiracy theory — that a parallel state of Democratic elites and Hollywood stars who are paedophiles and Satan worshippers were working against Trump and that he was saving the world from them, according to USA Today.
“The pandemic gives people a reason to want to doubt the truth, because the truth is scary as hell,” Jennifer told Cosmopolitan.
That quote was reinforced when I read about various psychologists studying the rise of Covid-19 conspiracy narratives, who point out that these conspiracies give the person consuming them a false sense of control when faced with a frightening uncertain reality.
Fear is our enemy
Many fears have come with the Covid-19 pandemic. Fears of death, illness, loss, vaccines, economic destitution, rights being eroded and being killed by soldiers and the police.
The Edelman Trust Barometer reports that, at 53%, the biggest fear respondents had was losing their job. Further down the list was the fear of getting Covid-19 (35%) and fear of losing freedoms as a citizen (32%).
The report also found that 21% of South African respondents would get a vaccine as soon as it was available, and 28% saying they would get the vaccine within a year. This leaves 51% of the respondents not committing to getting vaccinated, according to the report. In the polarised world of social media lacking in forgiveness and empathy, these 51% could easily be called anti-vaxxers.
If you think I am exaggerating I heard a friend referring to his mother as an anti-vaxxer because she dared to express hesitancy about getting a vaccine that appeared to her to have been rushed through regulatory approval, a legitimate concern that needs to be put at ease by sharing factual information, not scorn. As the Edelman Trust Barometer states, “Societal leaders must have the courage to provide straight talk, but also empathise and address people’s fears.”