Thanks to smartphones, smartwatches and the plethora of applications developers come up with, information has never been more accessible than before and easy to share. With the amount of information we are exposed to, it is getting harder to detect real information from disinformation. We look at the risks and impact of disinformation and share three key tips on how to avoid falling for and spreading disinformation.
What is disinformation?
Disinformation is false or misleading information created with the aim to cause harm, garner political influence or lead to financial gain. It is spread by using credible but misleading data.
What are the risks of disinformation?
The people at the source of the disinformation range from scammers to government intelligence agencies. Their craft has benefited from technology which helps make their campaigns more believable. Nowadays, they use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create deep fakes which are realistic-looking images, videos or audio fabricated with the intention to deceive. They also track performance and engagement.
Social media algorithms deliberately keep users in their social bubbles, keeping them separated from exposure to wider information, so victims may remain wrongly informed for a significant period of time post-event. Through these algorithms, users are shown the same information over and over, without being presented with opposing views. This cycle of disinformation creates and maintains wrongly informed citizens.
This self-reinforcing system of algorithms creates effective polarisation where members of one group dislike the members of the other. This polarisation can extend from music taste to political identification.
Once the disinformation is anchored in an individual, it creates a ‘fake memory’ which, within social media, makes convincing of the reality extremely hard.
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What does disinformation look like and what impact does it have?
There are some key contemporary examples of disinformation and the impact it can potentially have – some of them you have probably heard of before.
In 2010, during the election campaign in Trinidad and Tobago, Facebook was used to target young voters and lead them to interpret the refusal to vote as an act of resistance against politics. It led to the victory of the party that was the least favourite among younger generations.
In another example you’ve probably heard of, during the 2020 US elections, former president Donald Trump kept repeating that the election was rigged, and that there had been massive election fraud that robbed him of victory. This led to the Capitol insurrection on January 6 2020, with the assault on the US Congress.
And finally, the “Freedom Convoy” in Canada earlier this year was used by scammers as far as Romania and Vietnam to create revenue by either redirecting users to other websites to fraudulently gain advertisement revenue, asking for donations or just outright stealing personal information to be used in later phishing campaigns.
It’s easy to say the cost – both financial and social – from these acts of disinformation have been significant. But how can we tackle the issue before it gets to this point?
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3 ways to combat disinformation
While there are organisations that filter and dissect information for us, such as news media or government agencies, there are multiple ways to quickly, and with certainty, assess whether news, images, videos or audio is real or false. Here are three easy tips to avoid falling for and spreading disinformation.
1. Ensure the news source is reliable
When reading the headlines, check the news source is reliable – you can do this by using fact-checking websites such as Snopes. Make sure you also check if the article you are reading is a joke or satirical; it may be a reflection of your own confirmation bias.
2. Test yourself
3. Start a conversation
At home, start these important conversations with your loved ones so they are equipped to thwart a disinformation attempt. Ask your family members the following questions:
- Have you ever heard, believed or shared false news?
- How can you make sure you are not spreading disinformation? (think before you post!)
- Discuss what can be done at their level to prevent the exposure or proliferation of fake news.
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