There is no lack of strongly articulated concern about misinformation and disinformation, as highlighted by the assertion early in the pandemic by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (Hatred going viral in ‘dangerous epidemic of misinformation’ during COVID-19 pandemics, UN News, 14 April 2020; Global report: virus has unleashed a ‘tsunami of hate’ across world, says UN chief, The Guardian, 8 May 2020).
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, Nature, 27 May 2020; Disinformation campaigns are murky blends of truth, lies and sincere beliefs — lessons from the pandemic, The Conversation, 23 July 2020).
Disinformation is framed as a focus of preoccupation for the new US administration (Nina Jankowicz, How to Defeat Disinformation: an agenda for the Biden Administration, Foreign Affairs, 19 November 2020). It is a primary concern for the European Commission (Fighting Disinformation, 2020). In the UK it is now evoking proposals for mandatory testing and criminalization (UK terrorism chief calls for ‘national debate’ on criminalizing doubts about Covid-19 vaccine, RT, 19 November 2020; Jeremy Hunt: take test to earn freedom pass, The Sunday Times, 20 November 20 2020).
Dissent: The case with respect to the pandemic was preceded by prolonged concern with “fake news”, seen as undermining democratic processes and debate, and highlighted by the style of President Donald Trump. Less evident however is how fake news is to be identified and characterized, and whether or how it is understood to be a feature of misinformation and disinformation, as previously explored (Varieties of Fake News and Misrepresentation: when are deception, pretence and cover-up acceptable? 2019); and more problematic is the response by authorities to expression of dissent with regard to information claimed authoritatively to be well-founded (Rob Watts, Criminalizing Dissent: the liberal state and the problem of legitimacy, 2019).
At the 15th G20 Summit (Riyadh, November 2020), China proposed a coordinated security system to safeguard international travel (China’s Xi Jinping is pushing for a global Covid QR code, CNN, 23 November 2020). Related views have been echoed by the airline industry (Covid: Vaccination will be required to fly, says Qantas chief, BBC News, 24 November 2020).
The possibility of immunity passports is now widely discussed, potentially to be required for entry to public buildings, health facilities, public transport, educational institutions, or to obtain employment. Such certification has been criticized by human rights bodies as a form of Trojan Horse enabling other restrictive measures (Debate swirls on use of virus ‘immunity passports‘, MedicalXpress, 29 April 2020; Should People Without Coronavirus Antibodies Be Second-Class Citizens?, The New York Times, 28 April 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?