Disinformation and the threat to democracy

Democracy is under threat worldwide
Disinformation and Democracy

Democracy is under threat worldwide. Disinformation campaigns deliberately seeking to polarise public opinion and undermine trust in government are wreaking havoc with democratic institutions and governance.

South Africa is susceptible to this trend as evidenced in the recently released film Influence, which meticulously analyses the work of UK PR firm Bell Pottinger inter alia in fashioning narratives in support of state capture and an ANC faction’s bid for party dominance. American examples are even more striking as we have seen with the release of a Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report detailing programmatic use by the Russian state of false information in support of the Trump 2016 electoral campaign. Facebook has confirmed that these same Russian agencies are at work to disrupt the 2020 election. Whereas Bell Pottinger’s efforts were crude and more easily exposed, the Russian dirty tricks operation was sophisticated. The Russians have considerable experience in what is termed “dezinformatsiya”. 

That operation’s success proves my key assertion. Democracy’s very existence depends on an unwavering commitment by the media and government to convey accurate information, and concomitant faith on the part of the electorate in the accuracy of that information. Information comprises facts as well as ideas built on facts and reasoning, that are aired in the public sphere. Public information makes known available choices to enable informed decision-making. This is a mechanism to achieve shared beneficial outcomes. Information is required to make all kinds of choices, many of which do not appear to be political. But the political sphere via public policy shapes the parameters of some choices we consider more private.  By way of example, how to avoid contracting Covid-19 requires extensive public information dissemination. In the US, such information was distorted by the President’s disdain for scientific evidence and the politicisation of the pandemic such that anti-masking became a partisan statement. This was also largely the experience in the Philippines and Brazil. Authoritarianism and populism have much in common.

In totalitarian states, where the party controls every facet of citizens’ lives, only official orthodoxy is permissibly propagated. While information can be disseminated quickly due to centralised control, the population has no way of knowing whether it is propaganda or truth. This was the Chinese Covid-19 experience. Mistakes were airbrushed in favour of fictitious narratives of a saviour President Xi, but simultaneously accurate scientific evidence of how to avoid and combat the virus was conveyed. More obviously political decisions, such as which candidates and party to support electorally, connect the voter with the type of policies a candidate or party promotes and that a future government will implement, and for which it can be held accountable. In democracies where pluralism is highly prized, unlike in authoritarian states where it is suppressed, the political process therefore necessarily involves contestation around ideas in circumstances where the public has access to accurate information and is able to engage in the debate. Politicians are compelled to test their ideas deliberatively with the public in the “marketplace of ideas” in order to gain access to office and stay there. The “marketplace of ideas” concept is not without its detractors. But there appears no other way for ideas to be properly scrutinised in order to breathe life into the political process.

Debate around ideas allows voters to communicate principal concerns, to help configure future policy, to participate indirectly in public decision-making, and meaningfully secure their democratic rights. The process builds trust and accountability. Any notion that politics is intrinsically misrepresentation and embellishment, is false, betraying an a priori lack of conviction in the democratic political process. This is not advertising, but the communication of a set of promises forming the very substrate of consensual governance. Where power is accessed and exercised through deceit, distortion, inflammatory claims, and news manipulation, some of the attributes of “fake news” (the broader term “disinformation” is preferred), information is mistrusted, votes rendered meaningless, faith in the system undermined and social conflict heightened. In constitutional terms, where there is widespread disinformation, electorates are robbed of their right to make political choices, a right inhering in most democracies including South Africa’s. Electorates are robbed because one cannot make a real and informed choice based on disinformation.

The right to make such choices necessitates accurate information and a diversity of political positions. This, in turn, is connected to the expression right, entailing in South Africa’s case the right to a free press and other media. Here, this right has proved a powerful tool for exposing government malfeasance. A reinforcing right of access to state-held information is often legislated, as is the case in South Africa. All this must mean that the media has an almost providential role in any substantive democracy. It is vested with the task of verifying facts on which political and policy ideas are built, of ensuring that differing positions and opinions are aired, of enabling their public appraisal by focusing attention on the cogency of reasoning: in general, of safeguarding reputable information standards so that democracy can function.

Democratic institutions where policy and law are deliberated and adjudicated, play a similar role. It is not as if politicians have never lied before or that conspiracy theories have not previously existed. It is just that now these features have been exaggerated by the speed and reach of the internet and a multitude of social media platforms. These platforms provide anonymity, permit fictitious information sources, the creation of fake identities by trolls to deceive readers, and bots through which to manipulate and spread discourse.

Why are voters drawn to disinformation? 

Many have become alienated from mainstream politics. This is a trend that predates social media, but that has been exacerbated by it. Voters have been left susceptible to the fear and distrust fomented by disinfomers, leading to the search for more extremist views. Interactions on social media often become engagements with like-minded people in echo chambers and as a result, voters do not perceive political choices at all. There has been a growing disinclination to verify information, to explore differing views and to engage in the weighing-up process that entails political choice. This could well be due to information overload and complexity. The night before the Brexit referendum around 10 million Britons googled the Wikipedia page for the EU. This reflected poorly on the way in which information guiding the choices was presented and therefore on the integrity of the referendum itself.

Mainstream media too is struggling to function in the digital age, and sharp cutbacks have resulted in weaker journalistic output. The question becomes how to balance the right to free expression with the legitimate concerns that democratic states have in protecting the integrity of their institutions and processes. In other words, how does one counter disinformation without infringing on free speech.  This is a difficult balancing act. Obviously not all conspiracy theories can be prohibited, nor indeed all false statements referencing social or political issues. Much disinformation is in fact not comprised of outright false claims, but distorted, decontextualised and biased depictions of real issues and events. Moreover, it is not advisable to adopt a piecemeal approach to disinformation. It requires a co-ordinated response comprising government legislative enablement of social media corporates to root out programmatic disinformation aimed at undercutting democracy, and for the social media corporates themselves to use the technology they created to this end. 

So, by way of example, one might want to tighten what information corporates can legitimately sell on to third parties. One might also want to identify and investigate suspicious accounts that churn out repetitive political claims often in the form of short-hand slogans. One might, in addition, want to “neutralise” algorithms that are currently skewed to feed profiled users disinformation that is created to elicit strong, emotive responses. It is unwise to wait for the identification of clear patterns of disinformation dissemination. As the inquiries into the 2016 US presidential election indicate, proof of programmatic action is more easily ascertained via lengthy investigations. Disinformation has to be stopped at source. It is crucial that a democratically elected legislature pass laws that incorporate strict guidelines on how social media corporates are to function in line with constitutional principles and values. It is simply untenable that it be left to those corporates to both enable and themselves engage in, widespread and dangerous manipulation of content. Disinformation conveyors are deliberate and aware of what their actions entail and hope to achieve. Trump routinely deflects press criticism with his own accusations of “fake news”, devaluing the term. His approach was best captured in 2018 when he told supporters that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”, a line eerily reminiscent of Orwell in 1984 ... “the party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command”. In the US, the electoral base is extremely polarised. A large proportion is apparently willing to believe and support anything that Trump says, however incidental to the truth it happens to be. This is deeply concerning. 

It is hoped that South Africans are more sceptical of populist narratives because of the venality and larceny with which they are associated. But we should not be complacent. The Bell Pottinger messaging struck a chord. Jacob Zuma’s recent letter to President Ramaphosa alleging fealty to “White Monopoly Capital interests”, betrays ongoing reliance on such divisive messaging. Xenophobic media reporting on foreign nationals in South Africa is similarly troublesome.

These narratives have the potential to heighten social tensions and undercut South Africa’s democratic project.