Fact-checkers see claims circulating online and check them, clarifying the confusing ones and refuting the lies. As such, they are not prone to conspiracy theories or moral panics. Fact-checkers warn that the next elections in Western democracies will be under attack from many fronts and it seems governments are doing little to stop it.
Renowned journalist Tim Harford bangs the drum on social media that people should recognise that a lot of misinformation and disinformation is ridiculously simple – for example, old footage with a misleading description. Instead, he says that we must do the work of trying to distinguish between truth and lies. He adds that indiscriminate disbelief is as damaging as indiscriminate belief as we don’t (and shouldn’t) automatically reject everything as likely propaganda. To tackle the issue of disinformation we don’t require any intellectual brilliance or even years of formal study. We need softer assets: curiosity, patience, persistence and judgment, as it is not too late to bring them to the battle.
Democratic elections can have big consequences, such as in the US, Donald Trump getting elected, or in the UK, Brexit being enacted. The small number of swing voters, who are usually decisive in elections, often make up their minds in the closing stages of elections. These late surprises often dictate our political future. Launching a disinformation attack is cheap and easy, unleashing it can be decisive as a finely poised electorate goes to the polls.
This is not a new phenomenon, as lies can be targeted over social media, whispering to voters in the quiet corners of the Internet, unnoticed by journalists, fact-checkers and commentators. There is nothing wrong with such targeting unless these fly under the radar of fact-checking.
It is important not to overreact, as spreading unfounded cynicism about the electoral process is self-defeating since these bad actors aim to undermine our confidence in our elections.
Disinformation needs a framework describing information incidents in a way that can show us the severity of the problem. The only alternative is to pray that nothing happens, and if something does, the government of the day will thus try to manage while trying to get re-elected. The conflict of interest is painfully apparent.
Our current information ecosystem is fragile and many would be keen to exploit it. Our record in Ireland of being unprepared for financial and housing crises is remarkable. It might be worth thinking about this in advance this time.