A Brief Exploration of Disinformation In The Information Age

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Whilst the world-wide web – or what is simply referred to as ‘the internet’ – is easily one of the finest man-made creations to emerge in recent decades, there is an unfortunate truth that lingers throughout its very fibre. Yes, it is chaotic and yes, it is an avenue of undoubtedly free and unregulated speech (and rightfully so, but that’s another matter for another post), but the problem is its users. I say this, because inherently, the issue stems from its users, and nothing more, in that the amount of ignorance and misinformation that is disseminated across such a readily accessible platform is a problem.

My concerns stem from a multitude of occurrences that brought this train of thought to light. These include the recent Macauley Culkin ‘death hoax‘ of November, 2014, which in a matter of hours became a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook. People believed it. My instinct, when I saw the ‘news’ was to search the Google News section for myself, in a matter of seconds, any cause for concern was ameliorated. In that moment, my inner child spoke up:

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Perhaps I was one of the only few that took this away from the non-existent classes in common sense I took, which are proving to be more and more necessary within today’s social media circles. It echoes, after all, our previous generation’s message of not talking to strangers, not in that you could be abducted and never seen again, but more the means of how they would achieve that outcome: deception, manipulation, disinformation.

Culkin isn’t the only instance, in fact, he’s one of many. And it isn’t simply ‘internet death hoaxes’. I even recently had someone on my Facebook news feed post an alarmingly panicked, angry, and paranoid status that the American government had created the Ebola virus that is very much in the forefront of everyone’s mind. It turned out, in fact, that the 89 people that had liked the status and the 6 that had shared it (and subsequently influenced the mindset of so many others unaccounted for), along with the original poster herself, had misread a filed patent for a strain of the Ebola virus the CDC acquisitioned to circumvent for-profit patenting as well as facilitate broader research.

Disinformation has been presented in a variety of forms that have, unfortunately, warped us to the world around us, as is the case with this (Worst Twerk Fail EVER – Girl Catches Fire!) YouTube video that your friend may have linked you to. It went viral and people laughed. There’s nothing particularly funny about the video, in fact, if you take it at face value, a woman catches fire, screams and the video ends. Just think for a moment. You may have just witnessed the precursor to someone gravely injuring herself, or potentially worse and the most natural response is laughter? Imagine it as if further down one of the tangential lines on which you might find home videos, of those embarrassing scenes that net you £200 if it gets shown on TV.

It was later revealed though that this video was a prank, filmed for Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show. I have no qualm with Jimmy Kimmel, I have no qualm with the video, what I do have a qualm with is that if people looked in the description of the video, they would see exactly what I just told you. However, people’s lack of willingness to look past what’s presented directly in front of their faces (i.e. you just click a YouTube link to primarily watch a video) enables a unique phenomena to occur: the manifestation of a desire to spread disinformation. At a rate unbeknown to me, the video became viral and some people laughed. Granted, some didn’t. Some shared it anyway, albeit not out of concern, but out of mutual appreciation for what is misidentified as entertainment. The rate at which this ‘entertainment’ spreads, far exceeds and overshadows the rate at which those who checked the description to find out it was a prank did. As a result, for a while an alarming number of people believe what they see to be true, it takes days, perhaps even weeks or months for the truth to catch up, simply because people blindly disseminate what’s in front of them.

Whilst prank videos are common, they have different agendas, if any at all. Some, for entertainment, others, perhaps most intelligently, attempt to take advantage of the heat of the current social climate and the issues that are prevalent at that particular moment in time in an attempt to acquire viewership and subsequently award them with monetary gain. But apparently, that doesn’t matter as they hide behind the notion that they are increasing awareness of the social issue they are originally taking advantage of. It DOES matter.

Perhaps the most recent and prevalent example of disinformation in this manner is that in a YouTube video emerged where a ‘drunk’ woman (who is pretending to be so) is filmed on Hollywood Boulevard as men attempt to take advantage of her by taking her home with them. Or rather, this is what the video would like for you think. You may have already heard, or read the buzz surrounding this particular video. It was originally claimed to be a ‘social experiment,’ the same guise under which various YouTubers hide their inappropriate videos, and have recently taken fire for. The aforementioned video however, has since been removed by the owner, most likely due to the amount of criticism it has received.

The issue then, is still this, these videos, their agendas, whatever they might be – and if there are any at all – are enabled by ignorant viewerships. We, are users of the internet have a duty to question the hand that feeds us this material that we so willfully propagate, at the very least as a means of preserving our common sense, human decency and right to utilise such a widespread platform for communication, connection and respectfully spreading our own ideas.

As Farida Vis points out over at The Guardian, the World Economic Forum (WEF) invited its 1,500 council members to identify the main issues the world faces, and what should be done about them. The WEF consists of 80 councils covering a wide range of issues including social media. Members come from academia, industry, government, international organisations and wider civil society. A conclusion of the issues decided upon can be found as follows:

The top ten most concerning global issues, as voted for by the 1,500 council members of World Economic Forum.

As we can see, the rapid spread of disinformation online rests quite uncomfortably in tenth place, the next cyber-based concern rests in third place, with ‘cyber-threats,’ which is defined as: “the possibility of a malicious attempt to damage or disrupt a computer network or system.” It’s not hard to imagine the implication of damaged or disrupted computer systems, especially when we live in the (dis)information age, where nearly everything is systematically digital. I’m not saying number ten should be number one on our priority list, but if we allow ourselves to be so easily swayed by disinformation on the very platform that gives us such expressional freedom, we’re unravelling the very foundation on which this technology-heavy society is based. It should, at the very least, be a prevalent thought in everyone’s mind.

So this is just a friendly reminder that whenever you see, hear or read something, question it, see it for yourself, don’t sway so easily to the wind of social network trends, because it might just turn out that the information you’re being fed is a lie. If we ignore it, the chaos that resides across the platform of the world-wide web will continue to leak into, intensify and manifest within our society.

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