The information explosion in the 21st century which has allowed access to facts, the free exchange of ideas and the improvement of the human condition has had many serious consequences. One of them is the problem of misinformation – when the information shared is incorrect or inaccurate even though the sender honestly believes it to be true: for example, there will be a large sale in a store, but which turns out to be false.
A bigger problem is disinformation, when information is intentionally made or designed to deceive and mislead. This deliberate intention is a special form of evil, because its spread gives credit and causes people to believe or act. In the context of the pandemic, this has led to skepticism and reluctance towards vaccines as major obstacles to increasing vaccination rates for herd immunity.
Among the false stories that have been circulating are that vaccines can turn people into zombies, they can make couples infertile or children with autism, that there are dangerous ingredients harmful to the human body, the vaccination campaign is an elite tool to control the masses, and this is all a big Big Pharma conspiracy.
There are sectors which refuse to be vaccinated on political or religious convictions; there are still others who listen to charlatans, wizards or populist leaders. The common thread running through all of these claims is that not all of them are based on scientific or medical facts that are thoroughly tested and proven. A very simple counterpoint is that almost anyone would have been vaccinated as a baby against polio, measles, chickenpox and a host of other preventable diseases.
During election season, disinformation is not just done by individuals, but turns into a commercialized operation with candidates hiring groups to use fake accounts to smear opponents. Farms or armies of trolls are known to exist in the country or operate in neighboring states, aiming to influence election results.
Disinformation and disinformation is a pandemic in its own right. There are several ways to fight this scourge. Educating online citizens is always the best approach, but not the quickest or easiest thing to do. Like any long-term investment, it takes time, effort, patience, and resources to be able to reap an informed and thoughtful society in the online world.
Education can be broken down into advocacy which can be more manageable. For example, the campaign against the sexual exploitation of children has had positive results; there is no argument against penalizing pedophiles and sexual predators. For COVID-19, a project should be in place to constantly relay the message that vaccines are safe for the overwhelming majority of the population. For candidates for public office, voters should make it their mission to systematically check the background of each candidate against their demands.
Another good practice is to push for a change in the policies of technology companies that operate platforms. Already, reforms are underway on Twitter and Facebook to avoid adopting a “do not hear evil, do not see evil” approach to the content of their systems. Google has also banned political advertising for the 2022 election season. Internet users can join organizations to expose harmful technological practices, as these platforms are the main channels for disinformation and disinformation.
Vaccination is not just against disease. There may be a focused effort towards “information inoculation”, as even a small exposure to specific news of any kind can be effective. This means that by using the same malicious means used today, verified facts from science and medicine, and accurate portrayals of officials, can be disseminated to warn the public of upcoming misinformation. That way, they won’t be as likely to believe in falsehoods and lies.
There are administrative responses that can be developed by regulators in the tech industry. The need to define and punish disinformation is increasingly recognized; laws are passed to combat this modern crime. But, as with all laws, the effort requires a systematic, expert-driven effort to put everything in place. Misinformation doesn’t have to be a scourge we have to live with like another pandemic.
* * *
Geronimo L. Sy is a former Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Justice.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to access The Philippine Daily Inquirer and over 70 other titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download from 4 a.m. and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.