Disinformation: There is more to it than meets the eye

(oatawa/Getty Images)

By Francis Allan L. Angelo

Today, Nov 12, 2022, is the first leg of the 14th General Assembly of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), a network of liberal and democratic political parties in Asia, at the Iloilo Convention Center in Iloilo City.

The assembly is in partnership with the Liberal Party (LP) of the Philippines and the Center for Liberalism and Democracy (CLD), with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).

The theme of the assembly is “Building a Democratic Coalition Against Disinformation.”

I am currently on the last leg of the International Visitor Leadership Program on “Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists: Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation for the Indo-Pacific” in the United States.

The “Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists: Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation for the Indo-Pacific” highlights the importance of investigative journalism, fact-checking, and myth-busting in countering misleading information and demonstrating the serious impact of disinformation campaigns on domestic publics.

We examined strategies designed to encourage greater public awareness of the phenomenon of disinformation and explored the role of government agencies, NGOs, academia, and traditional and social media in the fight against the proliferation of deceptive media and the dissemination of disinformation.

One of the more interesting meeting we had was with Dr. Steven Livingston, the founding director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics (IDDP) and Professor of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC.

Livingston’s research and teaching focus on media/information technology and political theory. He is particularly interested in the role of information technologies and media on governance, development, accountability and human rights.

Dr. Livingston has studied disinformation not just as a communication issue but a symptom of broader political and economic woes.

Disinformation also goes beyond algorithms or computer language and codes that sway public passion and emotions towards a certain portion of the belief spectrum whenever they dabble in mainstream and social media.

Livingston and fellow scholars observed that disinformation is rife either in authoritarian setting or in nations with gaping economic inequality.

Using the Gini coefficient, which measures the inequality among values of a frequency distribution, such as the levels of income, they found out that there is surging anger towards neo-liberal democratic institutions because of the widening gap between the super-rich and extremely poor.

In Scandinavian countries such as Finland and Denmark where economic inequality is negligible, disinformation hardly works.

But in countries where the gap between the poor and rich is far and wide, disinformation is the name of the game.

This anger towards global capitalism and the inequalities it caused was stoked by social media, particularly its algorithm. It is legitimate for Facebook to claim that they did not start the problem of disinformation but it is still part of the problem.

In the Philippine setting, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was voted in office despite the myriad of fantastical disinformation spread by his supporters because of disenchantment with previous administrations, including the Liberal Party.

The very real problem of poverty and the chasm of inequality pushed more than 30 million voters to propel Marcos to power. But I also doubt that Marcos can solve this problem as he is also a bedfellow of political dynasties that perpetuate the gaping economic divisions in the country.

It behooves the organizers of the two-day assembly to also focus on this thought – that disinformation is a symptom of bigger political-economic problems.

Putting the spotlight solely on algorithms and political machinations in the last election will only make this event a gathering of sore and whining political losers.

(Updated to correct the 13th paragraph)