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The lies and the liars

fake news
"Deputy Minister Luwellyn Landers attends inauguration of Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina, 19 January 2019" by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Deputy Minister Luwellyn Landers attends inauguration of Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina,
19 January 2019 by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The president of the US stood at a podium with the White House seal emblazoned across the front and suggested that sunshine, household bleach and disinfectant might be a treatment for Covid-19. Newspapers around the world reported his remarks, but with a disclaimer that people should not be drinking or injecting themselves with cleaning products.

The companies that manufacture the brands the president mentioned also had to disavow his remarks. Three weeks prior, the same president erroneously suggested that chloroquine might be a treatment for the same disease, leading to a shortage of the drug in many countries and to a spike in chloroquine poisoning cases in places as far away as Nigeria.

This information age looks very different from the version we were promised. Instead of a highly informed public consuming an array of high quality media, it seems that people are increasingly susceptible to misinformation and disinformation. President Trump is not the only national leader that has made questionable statements regarding the treatment of Covid-19.

President Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar launched an untested herbal remedy for the disease which the government is now distributing door to door across the country and exporting to other African countries. A politician in India encouraged members of the public to drink cow urine. When powerful people become the mouthpieces for such lies, they can travel around the world fast and cause a tremendous degree of harm because of that stamp of authority.

Those concerned with digital rights and internet freedom have been grappling with the challenge of misinformation and disinformation for some time. Lately, malinformation has been added to the mix. Misinformation is defined as a deliberate wrongful characterization of the truth, disinformation is quite simply a lie, and malinformation is defined as providing the wrong information about something. To lean heavily on a single analogy, the first would call a spade a big spoon, the second would say there was never a spade, and the third would deny that spades are useful for digging.

These are subtle differences that matter a great deal for lawyers and policymakers, helping them figure out how far a person has strayed from the truth and what path they have taken. In practical terms they are tools to help us discern between the different lies that proliferate on the internet and other platforms.

The last few years have seen an uptick in initiatives to manage these practices, particularly on social media. Fact checking, news audits and even special plugins for news websites are designed to create a delay or intervention between the people who misrepresent the truth and the people who consume it. But most are focused on the consumers of misinformation rather than the people who create it. We mostly end up targeting critics of the state or meaningful dissent, and we still don’t know what to do about the people telling the lies.

Strategically, telling people not to believe lies, rather than telling people not to lie, is a short-term approach, but in the long term, if we don’t get to the root of why people create misinformation in the first place, as well as what to do when powerful people create and spread lies for their political survival, it won’t matter much. The lies and the liars will just become more sophisticated, and the problems they cause will just become more complicated.

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