Impact of misinformation and disinformation on society | Sunday Observer

Impact of misinformation and disinformation on society

27 August, 2023

The spread of misinformation and disinformation have emerged as a major threat to the Sri Lankan society more than ever before in history. The rapid spread of false or misleading information through social media platforms and online channels can have profound consequences on individuals and the entire society.

Fake and fabricated news spread predominantly through social media have the immense potential to disrupt public trust and harm democratic processes that can lead to long-term adverse consequences.

At the outset, it is important for readers to understand the distinction between the two terms. Misinformation is false, misleading, or out-of-context content shared without an intent to deceive.

For example, there were reports from all corners of the country on home-made medicine during Covid-19 pandemic. It was false information, but without bad intent except perhaps profit motive.

Disinformation on the other hand is purposefully false or misleading content shared with intent to deceive and cause harm.

In general, the primary difference between disinformation and misinformation is intent. For example, during the past several decades, there were many pre-election disinformation campaigns against popular candidates with daunting effects on them.

Before the emergence of social media, people around the world obtained information through conventional media, primarily from newspapers, radio, and television. All information disseminated on traditional media goes through multiple layers of fact-checking.

Usually, the information is produced only by authourised journalists or reporters. Therefore, naturally, the information shared through traditional media is substantially reliable.

On the contrary, information on social media can be generated and distributed by anyone who has a digital device. Therefore, the reliability in terms of accuracy is often dubious and dicey. It can be directed at anyone either with good intention or with malice. Almost limitless freedom has made social media platforms vulnerable to misuse, misinformation, and thus, “fake news”.

In the past few years, social media has turned out to be a huge player in influencing public opinion in Sri Lanka. A survey by the Asia Pacific Institute of Digital Marketing revealed that 90 percent of Sri Lankan internet users access news and information through Facebook, while 85 percent use YouTube. Ironically, these percentages are higher than those for traditional news sources such as TV (74 percent), radio (34 percent), and newspapers (24 percent), according to the survey.

On average there are approximately 8.4 million active social media users in the country which accounts for a staggering 60 percent of the adult population. Therefore, the influence of misinformation flow can make an enormous difference in public perception.

Hence, in terms of misinformation and disinformation, social media has become an utterly dangerous tool. Particularly, the creators of disinformation can go scot-free after committing an offense, as such fake content can be spread authorless where legal action is a virtual impossibility.

The more concerning aspect in Sri Lanka today is that anyone with a mobile smart phone can record a video, release it to one of the social channels and call themselves social media journalists as there is no regulatory authority to monitor and control. In contrast, conventional media journalists are issued a valid media accreditation where they take the full responsibility of the content they publish.

Misinformation and disinformation erode public trust in institutions, the media, and even the government. When people are exposed to false or misleading information repeatedly, they may become disillusioned, sceptical, and less likely to trust authoritative sources. The incessant flow of fake information is likely to even overshadow the information given by conventional sources.

Natural disasters

This erosion of trust hampers efforts to communicate crucial information effectively, such as during public health crises, natural disasters, or political events. As individuals retreat to echo chambers of like-minded people, social cohesion is undermined, leading to polarisation and the creation of “post-truth” societies.

False information

The dissemination of fake and false information has severe consequences for democratic processes. It is said that political instability can be more dangerous and more harmful than external adversaries or potential external threats. False information can influence elections, skew public opinion, and sway political debates.

The ongoing Socio-political splits aggravated by political misinformation campaigns of almost all political parties are key to elevating the likelihood of domestic instability, including atrocities. Sri Lanka is facing perhaps the biggest challenges now. Yet, not a soul, including most of the citizenry do not seem to be realising this bitter truth.

The use of misinformation to manipulate electoral outcomes or suppress voter participation poses a significant threat to the foundations of democracy in the country. It can foster an environment where citizens make decisions based on false information, compromising the integrity of the entire political system.

Devious political elements can engage in deliberate disinformation campaigns to advance their agendas. This can include spreading false information about opponents, manipulating public opinion, or scattering discord among communities.

Targeting opposition groups or leaders with specific false accusations such as corruption, power abuse, disloyalty, or even their private lives is becoming more and more normal. Through unregulated social media campaigns, so-called politically biased social media activists create negative public perception to undermine their opponents’ credibility.

In Sri Lanka, as the elections being demanded by every political party in the opposition, the weaponisation of misinformation can be particularly noticeable, as of now. The stakes are high as visibly the political competition intensifies rapidly and currently the citizenry can observe fake news campaigns, although the intensity is mild thus far.

Misinformation and disinformation can intensify social divisions and fuel conflicts within society. Fake news stories that stir up fears, hatred, or prejudice against certain groups can lead to violence and unrest.

As already divided factions consume and propagate conflicting narratives, it becomes increasingly challenging to find common ground, which is a dire need currently, for meaningful dialogue, fostering a fragmented society where cooperation and understanding are undermined.

The spread of misinformation can have significant economic consequences. Apart from the loss of public money, false information about economic trends also can lead to market volatility, loss of investor confidence, and disruption of supply chains.

In the long term, the economic damage caused by misinformation can hamper economic growth and stability, affecting jobs, investments, and overall prosperity.

For example, criticising some of the recent Central Bank decisions on the new monetary policies, a Sri Lankan political party started a campaign to spread misinformation citing that the entire banking system will collapse. The criticism came from half-baked politicians without any expert knowledge or experience on economic matters.

Perhaps, they were subtly expecting the public to panic and pull out their deposits. Fortunately, not only the banks sustained but also the public did not panic. Had all the depositors demanded their money back immediately, the bank would have had a severe issue and the entire system would have been affected, putting the country into more chaos.

The rapid pace of social media and the technology culture associated with its rise accelerate the spread of misinformation, pushing it faster and further. Social media continues to deliver news to public domain with little regard to critical fact checking and creating justifiable doubt.

Regrettably, social media platforms alter norms, ethics, expectations, and good practices in journalism by publishing false content for political or profit motives.

Political and societal misinformation and disinformation in Sri Lanka poses significant challenges to social cohesion, democratic processes, and public trust in strategically important institutions. By addressing the root causes of fake information, investing in media literacy, encouraging responsible journalism, and promoting cross-community dialogue, Sri Lanka can build a more resilient society that is less susceptible to the influence of misinformation.

Collaboration between stakeholders, including the government, media organisations, social media platforms, and civil society, is essential in developing a comprehensive approach to combat political and societal misinformation effectively. Through collective efforts, Sri Lanka can foster an informed and engaged citizenry, safeguarding the foundations of democracy, unity, and societal well-being.