Sunday, 5 December, 2021

Digital Disinformation


Narayan Prasad Ghimire

The vicious spread of disinformation grew alarmingly during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic is itself full of uncertainty and chaos, the spread of disinformation is fuelled further, thereby putting the vulnerable ones at the receiving end. The backward, unaware, low literate are bound to consume whatever comes as new information on the digital spaces. They unknowingly spread fake news. Across the globe, the dishonest element believing in deception and chaos cashed in on the COVID-19 as an opportunity, creating a murky atmosphere of information making people fearful and putting them in awe of the vicious situation. It also resulted in vaccination hesitation in many communities from different countries.

Curiosity to know more about new events is human nature. Even the aware people read anything that is 'new'- without caring much for its veracity. Even journalists and media houses have therefore become victims of fake news. As disinformation travels fast and sways large masses at once in a short time, it often becomes a handy tool for many people and sectors including political campaigners, cadres, activists, conspirators etc.

Elements that want to influence the masses and take advantage of murky situations frequently capture the digital space. In the wake of accelerated misinformation and disinformation during COVID-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had urged all to be aware of what it called 'infodemics'.

Disinformation: definition
While talking about disinformation, the words 'fake news, 'disinformation' and 'misinformation' often come to our mind. Before delving further, let us check some definitions for 'disinformation', and 'misinformation'.

A UNESCO publication on journalism education and training defines 'disinformation' as 'Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country'; and 'Misinformation' as – 'Information that is false but not created to cause harm. Similarly, in a report on 'How to combat fake news and disinformation, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Technology Innovation, Darrell M. West, writes, "When (Fake news) activities move from sporadic and haphazard to organised and systematic efforts, they become disinformation campaigns with the potential to disrupt campaigns and governance in entire countries."

In this write-up, I, however, use 'fake news' incorporating both misinformation and disinformation. However, the extent of risk is more in disinformation than in misinformation because as the definitions show, disinformation is a coordinated campaign to deceive people and the community. Despite knowing that information is misleading, it is spread intentionally to deceive people and the community. It is more damaging.

The report on 'Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression' prepared by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression to the UN (21 June–9 July 2021), Ms Irene Khan, states: "Disinformation is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that digital technology has enabled pathways for false or manipulated information to be created, disseminated and amplified by various actors for political, ideological or commercial motives at a scale, speed and reach never known before."

Tech companies behind disinformation
As digital platforms have a business purpose rather than the purpose of facilitation, convenience and connectivity, they employ algorithms and artificial intelligence to exploit the weak sides of users - e.g. anger, addiction, appetite online and expand their business model with big data - the data collected from every user. Therefore, the technical side of fake news is considered important. Tech companies are often blamed for the spread of misinformation and disinformation, thereby fueling the protest and discrimination in various countries.

A report on the research conducted some months back by Mozilla Foundation in Kenya mentions, "Disinformation campaigns are a lucrative business. One interviewee revealed that disinformation influencers are paid roughly between $10 and $15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Payments are made directly to influencers through the mobile money platform MPESA." With the research done over 23,000 tweets and 3,700 participants, accountants revealed at least nine different disinformation campaigns.

The report argues the amplification of any campaign is done by the algorithm Twitter employed. "Twitter's trending algorithm is amplifying these campaigns — and Twitter is also placing ads amid all this misinformation. 8 of the 11 campaigns examined reached the trending section of Twitter.

In the digital age, it is easy and convenient to wage advocacy for a narrative, and create its counter-narrative in a short time. As a result, the creation and collapse of grand narrative and counter-narrative are at their fingertips these days. Many scholars have repeated three words in terms of the impact of digital space- they are 'scale', 'speed' and 'scope' or 'velocity,' volume', 'variety'. These words are also brought up often while talking about big data which is the core component of digital activities. The virality of misinformation can be linked somewhere to it as well. Many have linked the spread of disinformation and fake news to populism, propaganda and conspiracy theories.

A surge in fake news debates
Scholars and researchers have raised the issues of disinformation especially after the 2016 elections in the US and the UK. Some examples include how Donald Trump launched a disinformation campaign to attack an opponent - speaking lies about Barack Obama's origin and birth certificate and making vituperative remarks about election contender Hillary Clinton. These elections have been taken as turning points to study heavily on fake news and disinformation. Electoral integrity has been the most important topic since then. There is voluminous research into fake news, misinformation and disinformation relating to Trump, who used to dub 'fake news' to the media, writing his criticism. Noted media in the US were labelled fake news by him. At the same time, he was propelling fake news, the researchers and writers argue. It shows how even democratic countries were also plagued by fake news and disinformation.

Nepali context: some projections
In light of the above references and analyses and Nepal's present situation, here are some reasons behind the possibility of the spread of fake news: misinformation and disinformation. They are i) political rift, ii) socio-cultural cleavage, iii) system in transition or fledgling republic iv) election, v) low digital literacy and vi) media manipulation etc.

Lately, Nepal has witnessed a severe political tussle-and-contradiction. Although last-ditch efforts were by the communist parties to unify, they faced a debacle. The political rift has resulted in party splits and excoriation of parties, leaders and leadership. Similarly, the remarks made by one political leader to another are so scathing and sickening that they are no longer accommodative but seem to yearn for a single-party regime. The cadres are so blind that the incendiary punch lines by their leaders are repeated so much irrespective of the truth and logic behind it. They are circulated hugely on digital space, thereby depriving citizen's right to the right information. As interparty and intraparty conflicts mount, the chances of spreading fake news are high.

The social and cultural cleavages can be understood as socio-cultural discrimination and difference which is already deeply rooted in Nepal. This is also a factor contributing to the virality of disinformation in digital space. Despite having the right to equality mentioned in the Constitution, discrimination based on gender and caste is still intact. At any time of a serious event, accident or scam relating to socio-cultural issues, the chance of disinformation online is highly likely. Hate speech, cyberbullying, cyber harassment have already taken a toll on people.

Similarly, we have a new system- federalism, loktantra and republic. Nepal is undergoing multiple transitions - governance model, constitutional setup, administration etc. The new system is fragile because we are yet to fully institutionalise and cement it. The section which is dissatisfied, frustrated and opposed to the new system may naturally conspire with misinformation and disinformation to delude people and attract mobs. It has not been long since Nepal abolished the monarchy. Ardent lovers and acolytes of monarchy are calling for restoration. Here, this may lead to a tussle with progressive and regressive forces, which is likely to spill into digital space as fake news.

The next big national political festival is the election. This is another event that may invite a host of digital campaigns that would spread misinformation. Nepal is holding the second round of three tiers of elections - at the local, provincial and federal level in one-and-half-year after it got a new system. As an election is a fight for the post, position and power, election campaigns are normal. When electioneering goes digital, it has a wider effect. Anyone involved in campaigning can join the bandwagon of eulogy or excoriation of any political leader or party via digital space. For them, incendiary speech by the political leaders become inspiration and impetus. In the cut-throat competition, the leaders play fast and loose with the truth. They disregard the scientific fact and general assumptions and devote themselves to alleging opponents. It has undoubtedly made a direct contribution to the spread of misinformation and disinformation digitally. Are our political parties ready to maintain electoral integrity in this digital age?

More and more places are getting internet connections in Nepal now. Internet penetration has exceeded 100 per cent. The use of smartphones is growing tremendously. Similarly, the use of social media, especially Facebook and YouTube are rife. However, there is a severe dearth of knowledge and skills to use social networking sites, resulting in posting, sharing, and commenting on fake news. Internet consumers are unaware of the difference between professional media and social networking sites. You can see some berating media people by seeing filthy, unedited content on social media. Even intellectuals are swayed by disinformation online. Many do not question: What is the origin of this news? Who spread it? Is the person or institute producing the news reliable? Hasty belief in fake news affected personal behaviour and social order indeed. Therefore, digital literacy is essential to all our parents, teachers, students, political cadres and campaigners, media persons. Digital literacy is not only for staying away from misleading information and keeping us digitally safe but for building skills and knowledge to negotiate the digital space and enjoy human rights online.

Media manipulation is a grave threat to the system in the entire world. The undue influence on media is exerted by owners, political parties, industrialists, businesspersons, lobbyists, and activists. The press needs to be free and independent to serve the public good, but once it is manipulated for vested interests, it is a sheer challenge to professionalism, to society, and the system as well. I still remember my friend's observation in recent media. He had shared that presently, 'Goji Patrakarika' is gradually dominating 'khoji patrakarita', that is to say, journalists are lured by money rather than digging for truth and investigation.

Moreover, Nepali media have severe financial problems. Any media person or media house generously providing monetary support may compromise journalistic ethics and professionalism, thereby tilting to one side unnaturally and even spreading fake news on others. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, a huge number of journalists opted for digital media. There is currently cut-throat competition among online media houses. The manipulation of fragile media is highly likely by the political parties and business persons. Importantly, it may have been triggered during the election. And how can the media stay independent when they are provided money by the government based on political faith?

Together with this, one of the most pressing concerns is low IT skills among Nepali journalists. Many of us do not want to browse multiple websites for verification of news events though it is found confusing and surprising. And, if it is found on multiple websites, we hastily think it is right. What's the disclaimer? Are the publisher, producer, editors trustworthy? How coherent or contradictory the news is? Is there any logo?

In addition to the above points, here is a strong reminder that The Millennium Challenge Account Nepal Development Board (ACA-Nepal) had to release a press statement on 13 September 2021 to refute disinformation made viral online in the wake of the visit of MCC officials to Nepal. A pamphlet showing virtual programme details for ratification of the MCC Compact was spread widely.

The disinformation paper also included the names of noted journalists attending the virtual MCC-lobbying meeting. The internet users got puzzled, misguided and deluded by it because it had used the logos and signature of the ACA-Nepal officials and mentioned noted journalists. Later, noted journalist Kanakmani Dixit had reached the Cyber Crime Bureau of Nepal Police to file a complaint. His registration number was 1134 as per his tweet on September 13, 2021.

The spread of such critical information cannot be belittled simply as misleading news but coordinated efforts made to deceive the large populace, so we can argue it is 'disinformation'. Needless to say, how misinformation - 'besarpani' tips for prevention of COVID-19 spread much after getting recognition by bigwigs. In this connection, some journalists and CSOs in Nepal have launched fact-checks to find out fake news spread in the media and make people aware. is one of them.

Curbing disinformation
Mr West further suggests all sectors' contributions curb fake news and disinformation. He concludes, "Everyone has a responsibility to combat the scourge of fake news and disinformation. This ranges from the promotion of strong norms on professional journalism, supporting investigative journalism, reducing financial incentives for fake news, and improving digital literacy among the general public." In addition to all sides' role to curb the vicious plethora of disinformation polluting digital public spaces, many scholars and researchers have urged big tech companies to be asked to maintain transparency.

In a research article for the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, researchers Emily Saltz, Soubhik Barari, Claire Leibowicz, and Claire Wardle, observed, "Platforms should strive to minimise errors in automated systems that reduce trust in interventions while amplifying positive encounters with misinformation intervention."

Meanwhile, in the wake of the spiralling effects of misinformation and disinformation online, many countries have begun tightening nooses around tech companies and bringing laws and regulations. To, Daniel Funke and Daniela Flamini brought forth summarised references to various countries in a long article, 'A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world.' Countries resorting to laws, regulations, or reports are both authoritarian and democratic.

Adoption of a multi-stakeholder approach
Fake news has multiplying effects - to journalism, school and college, science and research, political parties, CSO. Every information consumer is the ultimate target of fake news. It has contributed to the erosion of trust and credibility. Therefore, whether it is via digital literacy or regulation, it can be addressed properly. Most importantly, while regulating fake news, citizens' human rights online must not be compromised. While curbing the effects of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital platforms, the benefits of the internet must not be ignored.

(Ghimire, associated with the National News Agency (RSS), is an internet governance enthusiast)