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Opinion & Analysis

The new normal: Misinformation and the war on social media

What a ride, what a journey, 2020 is truly out to finish us… and we’re just about halfway through it…

That statement is both relieving and depressing. We’ve spent the good part of 2020 jumping from one depressing thing to another.

Just in January, we had Australia getting rampaged by wildfires, the threat of more war after the USA killed the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, this then leads to Iran “accidentally” shooting down a Ukrainian plane killing the 176 people on board, the WHO officially getting notified of the CORONAVIRUS infections in Wuhan.

Wuhan went into a full unprecedented lock-down shortly after, an impeachment trial for the orange president, a basketball superstar and his daughter dying in a helicopter accident and Britain finally withdrew from the European Union… and well, instead of making you re-live any repressed memories you may have from February onwards, I’ll just say CORONAVIRUS.

The coronavirus has managed to present humanity with many challenges as countries worldwide gripped themselves for the worst and were forced to adapt to extreme measures to try and avoid reliving what happened in Northern Italy, Wuhan and Madrid, where hospitals massively struggled with the intake of patients needing ventilators.

Here in Gibraltar, the Government made the necessary measures to enforce a lockdown and started preparing for a “prepare for the worst” scenario by building field hospitals, sourcing extra ventilators and enforcing a strict lockdown upon those most vulnerable, our over 70s. Normality as we know it was turned upside down from one day to the next.

During the lock down, I noticed an increase in something quite concerning and it’s the number of misinformation and conspiracy theories that are being shared around local Facebook groups.

With more of us spending time at home, people are turning to social media and YouTube and we are seeing a rise in overnight “experts” in complex subjects like biology, virology biology, economy by watching a 20 minute badly-produced video, and we’re seeing a rise in the “University of Life experts” who are sharing memes, screenshots, photos and articles with very little substance or facts on how coronavirus is fake/manmade, or how it’s all a ploy by Bill Gates or a ploy by governments to control us or how 5G somehow ties into all of it.

The theories are absolutely endless and in a day and age where social media is full of technophobes and tech-illiterate people, it has become easier than ever to target people online and make them believe any old thing shared on social media as legitimate.

The “University of Life experts” have all the answers, they know better than the experts or worse, to them it is all a conspiracy where Bill Gates made a deal with George Soros to implant you with a chip via a vaccine because being “woke” and not a “sheep” means you can look down upon people and feel good about yourself as if you have some otherworldly knowledge over the experts and the people who have literally dedicated their lives and careers to science.

And clearly, a two-hour binge on YouTube where an algorithm dictates what videos to recommend to you based on your biased viewing constitutes “research”.

But the key point here is this: If I watch a video of a nut-job telling me the coronavirus is fake, YouTube’s algorithm will play me an equally biased video next regardless of facts, science or truth.

The algorithm picks up these videos on engagement and virality, not on truth or facts. YouTube won’t recommend videos of opposing sides of an argument and in this day and age, critical thinking is a valuable exercise we should all be practising. Look at the facts, look at both sides, be rational, have healthy discussions, use scientifically-backed sources etc...

The reality is once you go down a YouTube rabbit hole, YouTube will only feed you more of what you clicked on and will entrench you deeper into these views despite any facts or truths.

Technophobes and, in general, many people don’t seem to understand this. You’re able to find all these “alt truths” and facts there that you won’t find on your TV news channel … because [SPOILER ALERT], pseudoscience and misinformation are dangerous things. And the worst part of it all? Most of these outlandish conspiracies usually start as a form of information warfare designed to divide people.

So, what is information warfare? Information warfare is the new modern-day battlefield. It’s making use of technology and focusing on the more human-related aspects of information use, including social networks analysis, decision analysis and the human aspects of command and control. The information age was supposed to be a new awakening for humans.

The internet was a tool that would propel humans to become wiser, smarter and more connected…but it has been abused and taken advantage of.

Much like throughout human history, we found ways to meddle with something and use it for nefarious reasons. Whether it’s the Cambride Analytica story or more recently, 5G does *insert outlandish theory with zero science here*. It has become easier than ever to manipulate people online via strategic dumps of misinformation” using the one common thing, targeting our fear factor.

5G is the latest craze for our conspiracy-minded population and Gibraltar, albeit being tiny with 30,000 people, we have an alarming rate of “experts” among us, none which as far as I’m aware, work in the telecommunications or science industry…

Many nonsensical theories on 5G already existed prior to the coronavirus outbreak but thanks to the outbreak, it has propelled a whole new bunch of outlandish ideas on how 5G is possibly responsible for coronavirus and or its spread. Originally, they claimed 5G causes cancer, nose bleeds, dementia, or that it’s a mind control tool, you name it and there’s probably a piece on it on some pseudoscience website making the claims written by a clairvoyant named Gideon.

People are currently living through very anxious times so what better time than now to target the fear factor in our human psyche?

Can you guess where the first stories of 5G being dangerous started?

RT News is a Russian state-backed “news” network and I use the term news very loosely as it has been widely described as a propaganda machine for Putin and they’ve spent a proportionate amount of time spreading misinformation and fear which no doubt sparked the theories out there today.

Think of them as the butterfly that flapped its wings and triggered the butterfly effect. RT back in January 2019 claimed 5G will kill you, that it’s a global catastrophe, that it’s a massive health experiment. At the same time, Putin was ordering the launch of Russian 5G networks in a tone evoking optimism rather than doom and gloom.

Russia is playing catch up with the rest of the Western world and China to have its 5G infrastructure up and running because whether we like it or not, it’s the future and the stronger, reliant and more resilient a country’s infrastructure is, the more it can prosper. Via misinformation, Russia has succeeded in dividing people. Whilst we all fight and burn down phone masts, Russia ploughs ahead and installs their infrastructure. If there’s anything Russia does well and is succeeding at, it’s meddling in the affairs of other countries using misinformation and disinformation.

They have succeeded in the past and continue to succeed, albeit the Russian Government denies such allegations.

Today, Facebook and social media is full of technophobes and tech-illiterate people. There are more people online than ever thus it becomes easier to instil fear, scaremonger and spread misinformation. 20+ years ago, you only had young people techies on the internet, and it was harder to target groups of people.

Parents, grandparents and tech-illiterate people stayed well away. Today everyone and their grandparents have a social media account. Therefore, fact-checking should be more important than ever. People are more vulnerable and gullible online and are easily persuaded by misinformation and see people fall for SMS/emails/call scams constantly.

A large demographic of people today, have merely adopted the internet and at a time where the internet is a virtual battlefield, many are oblivious to that fact. On the other hand, we have younger people who are growing tired with the status quo, tired of broken promises and turn too far-right movements and conspiracy theories because it goes against the norm and fuels the idea that everything is someone else's fault.

If one thing is for sure, here in Gibraltar we’re not immune to these outlandish and sometimes dangerous ideas and theories. Whether it’s dangerous anti-vaxxer propaganda, insane 5G or coronavirus theories, just have a browse through local groups any day of the week or even your newsfeed and undoubtedly, every day you’ll find a new thread either claiming 5G is evil or causing the virus or that the virus is fake or vaccines are an evil form of control.

Sharing or reading a meme does not make you an expert, nor does a YouTube marathon session equal research in a complex subject. Facts are still facts. Complex subjects like virology, vaccines, epidemiology etc… all require years and years of studies followed by real-life experience and exposure in your dedicated field.

Maybe, just maybe, these professionals are much better qualified to advise and comment on these complex issues over some YouTube vlogger posting clickbait content in the hopes of selling you a book or hoping their content goes viral.

Daniel Ghio is an account manager at a Gibraltar-based technology company. He stood for election with Together Gibraltar at the last general election, and is passionate about technology.

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