The era of disinformation

INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak - The Philippine Star

It’s been unavoidable these past several months (well, years, if I am being completely candid) not to think about the way the world consumes information. I don’t think we realize how much this has changed over the past 10 years or how much this will continue to change in the future. And it’s not just the way we consume information and news that is changing but our entire culture with it.

One of the most pressing concerns we have in the country – and worldwide – is the proliferation of “fake news” or simply false information accepted as truth. Former US President Donald Trump’s counselor to the president (at the time) Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” at a Meet the Press interview in 2017. This was when she defended then White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements about Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration attendance numbers.

People may have just shaken their heads or rolled their eyes at the time. Still, the reality is alternative facts are already starting to shape our daily lives and impact us in ways we didn’t think possible. And now, more than ever, they are becoming a part of the daily narrative. The problem now is distinguishing these falsehoods from the truth and how to discern them properly.

Alternative facts stem from wanting to find the truth that fits a specific narrative. This is mainly used by people who already know what they want and need evidence or facts to support it. It’s usually easy to find because they already have a clear mindset and refuse to accept anything else. If you want to believe something badly enough, you can easily find someone out there willing to support your claim.

And that may be the crux of the problem. The reason disinformation spreads so quickly and thoroughly is that people want to believe. They want to believe something, so when they see anything that supports that belief, they latch on to it and quickly share it with others. This share turns into another share and another. Soon, like-minded individuals are convinced they are right and have the information to prove it.

This topic has been a hot-button topic for quite some time now and has recently come to light again. It’s campaign season in the country, and so much news is flying around. We have to hope that people can be discerning and able to distinguish fact from fiction. Or to put it more accurately – fact from slightly exaggerated fact or fact from half-fact.

That is actually part of the real problem of false news or alternative facts. A lot of the time, there is a grain of truth somewhere in there. And that grain is enough to give such facts a life of their own. Nowadays, it’s much harder to accurately fact-check and find a good source. People who don’t want to be wrong tend to just look the other way when evidence arises that what they believe might not be accurate.

All of this creates a hotbed for inaccuracies, half-truths, and people fighting one another. We see it every day on social media and even in real life. Links are shared faster than the blink of an eye, and while some may be accurate, dozens are not. It’s becoming harder and harder to really fact-check, and so much is just being accepted as true.

I was reminded of this just recently with the success of Netflix’s latest offerings – Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler. These two shows (one a mockumentary TV series and the other a documentary movie) showcase the lives of two con artists who scammed their way to millions of dollars. Watching the show now, it’s almost difficult to believe how much they got away with, but at the same time, considering the world we live in, is it really that hard to believe?

In Inventing Anna, a young girl made people believe that she was a wealthy heiress and tried to con Wall Street out of millions of dollars. This was all done in an attempt to build a foundation/business based on art and exclusivity. She stayed at the finest hotels and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. A journalist broke her story only after she was finally arrested.

On the other hand, in the Tinder Swindler, a man created a false profile on Tinder. He made a whole new persona to con women out of money to fund his lavish lifestyle.

He told them he was a diamond heir who had a lot of enemies and needed their help with money and credit cards to help evade those who would do him hard. These women ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to help a man they loved, only to end up holding the bill when he suddenly split.

It’s painful to watch in some parts, and quite frankly, it’s not a true story. People getting scammed is a tale as old as time. The only difference now is that it has become infinitely more effortless in the world of social media and “fake news.” Con artists are able to create a whole online life and persona thanks to social media and likes. They just need to be in the right place at the right time, with the right people. One photo taken out of context could easily elevate their status and help them prey on others.

And that’s how alternative facts work. A half-truth is enough to propel an entire narrative. And people are more than willing to play along. So how do we protect ourselves? While it’s sad to be so distrustful, a level of distrust is vital in the world we live in. We can no longer take everything at face value. We have to really dig through the information we receive to get to the truth hiding under all the embellishment.

As the online world continues to grow, fueled even faster by the pandemic, we also have to grow along with it and empower ourselves to always look for the truth. If we don’t, we can easily get swept away in a wave of alternative facts, fake news, half-truths, and even downright lies.


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