The complex nature of disinformation and its relation to misinformation is a continuing focus of comment (Managing the COVID-19 Infodemic: promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation
, Joint statement by WHO, UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, ITU, UN Global Pulse, and IFRC
, 23 September 2020; The epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories
, 27 May 2020; Disinformation campaigns are murky blends of truth, lies and sincere beliefs — lessons from the pandemic
, The Conversation
, 23 July 2020).
How is misinformation to be distinguished from any information with which authorities disagree or prefer to have suppressed?
Complicity of authorities: Especially problematic is the degree to which authorities can themselves be held to engage in disinformation, or be complicit in misinformation — whilst both vigorously denying such complicity and accusing the accusers in turn.
It is now a feature of international discourse that authorities accuse each other of promulgating disinformation whilst claiming total innocence in that regard — a posture preceded by claims to electronic surveillance
of each other and of major intergovernmental institutions (Alleged Breach of UN Treaty Obligations by US
, 2010). Such information interferences have now been reframed as “everybody does it”. This is a view less evident in the case of disinformation, where some continue to claim total innocence — as with denial of interference in foreign elections
Belief and disbelief: The dynamics of these issues are being played out with almost no reference to information and belief as it is widely experienced. Irrespective of the assertions of politicians and ideologues, and the beliefs they evoke, how is information delivered as commercial advertising of products and services to be distinguished from fake news and disinformation?
There is a dubious leniency given to claims made in advertising, with whatever authoritative research it is presented; legally this is termed puffery
and excesses supposedly moderated by fair trading legistation. Unresolvable difficulties in this regard are evident in the claims of the pharmaceutical industry to those offering “natural medicine” or homeopathic products. Each accuses the other of a form of dangerous disinformation — whether people are free to choose between the products, whether based on evidence, persuasion or belief in their efficacy.
Infection by religion?
It is curious to note the extent to which either belief or disbelief may now be recognized as a form of “cognitive infection” — a “memetic disease” (Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society
, 2008). The matter has been of concern in distinguishing problematic cults from authentic religions. However, given the manner in which disinformation is becoming framed, how is a religion to be distinguished from what is thereby subject to condemnation — even through legislation? The issue is especially complex in that each religion has a remarkable tendency to perceive other religions as a form of “infection”, cognitively understood — and consequently as a fundamental danger to the soul in the afterlife or here on earth.
The point could be made otherwise in that each religion promotes its capacity to provide “ease’, especially for the suffering soul. It follows that each religion attaches credibility to the “disease” associated with subscribing to the beliefs of other religions. Whilst some readily assert that all religious claims are effectively “fake news”, the challenge of distinguishing misinformation from disinformation is clearly one that is inadequately addressed — especially in democracies of Christian inspiration.
A more prosaic variant of the dilemma is offered by competing commercial products, each desperately promoted to ensure customer loyalty — to the point of constituting a religion — as with Coca-Cola and Pepsi. From a marketing perspective, is any increase in enthusiasm for the competing product to be recognized as a consequence of disinformation — dangerously “infecting” potential customers and alienating them from more appropriate belief?