People make mistakes.
Throughout history, whether through inaccurate sources or human error, news reports and events have been published that have later turned out to be incorrect. In 1888, Alfred Nobel’s brother died from a heart attack. Due to poor reporting, a French newspaper mistook the death as Alfred’s, and wrote in the paper’s subsequent obituary that Nobel was a ‘merchant of death’ due to his invention of dynamite (some say he went on to set up the Nobel Peace Prize as he was horrified as this was how he would be remembered).
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union often targeted American audiences with fake and misleading stories. Declassified Russian documents show that by the early 1980s, the Soviets were spending more than $3 billion on influence campaigns. In 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the local radio station KLIF circulated rumours that Vice President Lyndon Johnson had been shot and injured too. He hadn’t been, but in the whirlwind of a breaking news story, mistakes can often be made.
Fast forward to the present day. Access to the internet is generally widespread and there are around 2.9 billion people worldwide with at least one social media account. This means that any mistake a news organisation makes has huge consequences, as far more people than ever before can go to their website or follow their page on Twitter. You don’t need to buy a newspaper or tune in to BBC News at 6pm every night to get your news anymore if you don’t want to. It is all online.
On Saturday, the entertainment and gossip site TMZ put out an article in which they revealed: ‘Kim Jong Un reportedly dead after botched heart surgery’. The story has over 4 million shares on Facebook and at the time ‘#kimjongundead’ was trending on Twitter. TMZ did no primary reporting themselves on the story, and sneakily acknowledged this in the article in which they wrote ‘TMZ has not confirmed that’. I am not insinuating that Kim Jong Un is, in fact, in full health, as it appears curious that he did not appear at Kumsusan Palace to mark the birthday of his grandfather, but by TMZ projecting that they have the scoop when they are merely speculating at this point is misleading. I mean, I could speculate that he has died and even presume that, but it is dangerous and misleading of me to report that as accurate when there isn’t enough credible evidence to confirm that yet. Clicks and traffic drive ad revenue, and TMZ know that they do not need to be factually accurate to make money on the internet. They can rely on misleading clickbait instead.
The spread of disinformation is dangerous and is becoming all too common in the digital age. Recently in the UK, 5G masts have been burned down following social media posts that falsely linked the technology to the virus, and the British government have been attempting to stop the spread of misinformation in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Fake versions of text messages from doctors with inaccurate advice on how to protect yourself have been circulating on social media. Writing in a 2015 report, Craig Silverman supports the idea that disinformation and the race to be the first to report on a story can lead to inaccuracies: ‘Within minutes or hours, a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares. Once a certain critical mass is reached, repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumour becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.’
The internet and social media can also be weaponised and used for nefarious means by state actors too. A recent report found that China and Russia have used the coronavirus crisis to spread false reports with the aim of undermining the EU and its partners. In Spain, Facebook and Twitter were forced to pull over 300 accounts linked to a major political party which were ‘falsely boosting public sentiment online in Spain’ through spamming and retweeting. Disinformation is a major threat to our society and democracy more widely, and more needs to be done to stop its spread. In 2019, disinformation campaigns occurred in at least 70 countries, a sharp jump from 28 countries in 2017, according to a report conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. This highlights that the issue is not simply confined to Western Europe and is a worldwide problem that needs to be tackled and addressed head-on. In India for example, disinformation is so widespread that some political commenters have likened it to a public health crisis, as 64% of Indians surveyed said they encountered disinformation online.
Much more needs to be done to address this issue in the current period of uncertainty and worry. It is good that government videos and infomercials are being promoted by large social media companies, and I understand that on a platform used by so many that not every misleading post can be prevented, but I still feel that currently the online space is being used by some to deliberately spread rumours and cause harm. Social media should be a tool for education and communication, not disinformation and distrust.