The dangerous trend of disinformation must be curbed

Venkat Raman
Auckland, June 16, 2023

The Fourth Estate, comprising the press and the news media is under serious threat, following its invasion by vested interests, extreme elements and unscrupulous politicians.

Add to this unholy mix the purveyors of speculation and mischief-mongers of social media, you have the deadly potion of misinformation, misdirection and misdeeds of sorts.

In all of these, truth and the commons are the victims.

The augmentation of the conventional media- the Press, Television and Radio- by the onset of electronic platforms such as Social Media and Chatrooms has had a positive impact on people’s participation in sharing news and views, it has also had the deadly and dreadful effect of information and manipulation. Truth has never been threatened as it stands today.

Disinformation and Media Manipulation were the subjects of a highly informative and topical workshop held at the University of Auckland on Wednesday (June 14, 2023). Conducted by former New Zealand Herald Editor-in-Chief Dr Gavin Ellis and University Distinguished Professor and International Science Council Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, it had the benefit of the expertise and knowledge of Harvard University Professor Dr Joan Donavan.

Debunking manipulation

Dr Donavan is the Research Director of the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy and has earned a global reputation for her thoughts on media, politics and public policy. She leads Harvard University Edward Kennedy School’s Technology and Social Change Project which conducts research, develops methods, and facilitates workshops on detecting and debunking disinformation and media manipulation campaigns.

The internet is not singular; it is a tool, a tactic, and a territory. The internet is home to an accumulation of technologies that challenge relations of power globally.

The two-hour workshop was designed to cultivate an understanding of what vulnerabilities exist within and across our networked media ecosystem.

Media manipulation and disinformation campaigns are organised for a variety of purposes, from influencing politics and elections and mainstreaming extremist world views to misleading the public on health issues. The Workshop focused on the negative impacts of social change by analysing current media manipulation tactics and techniques, and the detrimental effects disinformation campaigns have on democracy, national security, public health, and our lives.

Dr Donavan defined manipulation campaigns and showed how to spot when manipulation is likely to occur, discussed the types of wedge issues that are most likely to be manipulated and the current strategies employed by key stakeholders to combat media manipulation.

If politics is a way of life, manipulation and deception are its cohorts and are particularly abundant and influential on the web, since it is less expensive and easier to reach people, and artificial intelligence methods like deepfakes make it simpler to doctor video and audio.

Samuel Wooley of the University of Texas at Austin was worried before the 2020 US Election that ‘computational propaganda’ will become even worse.’

Effective tactics

Writing in the Economist, KNC said that misinformation that splits one side’s support is just as effective as vaunting the other side. It was an effective tactic in the past.

As Wooley described the 2016 campaign: “The goal was to divide and conquer as much as it was to dupe and convince. Computational propaganda campaigns, from Russian manipulation of the US election in 2016 to Syrian government attempts to quash online dissent during that country’s revolution, have used social media technologies to do exactly what they were designed to do: amplify information, communicate about social life, and generate trends. Those who launch them have simply used platforms like Facebook and Twitter to control rather than liberate clearly to the shock of the social media companies, which should have had enough foresight to see that powerful political actors and even regular people, would try to use their platforms to repress at the same time others were using them to democratise.”

The Auckland workshop addressed how social movements, political parties, governments, corporations, and other networked groups, including professional disinformation operators, engage in active efforts to control the public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society.

Democracy under threat

It was scary.

The occupation of Parliament Grounds last year demonstrated New Zealand society’s vulnerability to such campaigns and revealed alarming attitudes toward media and journalists in this country. The Workshop provided an opportunity to discuss the implications of these disturbing trends and how our media organisations can defend themselves and the public against their corrosive effects.

This event was a precursor to a Koi Tū workshop series on the systemic challenges facing New Zealand media and the implications for our democratic society. The now-abandoned Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media Bill demonstrated how quickly the media industry can be affected by significant change. This workshop series aims to prepare media organisations, journalists and policymakers to cope with an era of instability, uncertainty, and game-changing technology.

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