Kevin Lewis turns his attention to information, misinformation and disinformation.
Time will tell whether Donald Trump will turn out to have been a historian, a commentator or a clairvoyant. He may have popularised the term ‘fake news’ and certainly disseminated a shedload of the stuff while claiming all other versions of the truth to be ‘fake’, but he certainly didn’t invent the term – or the technique.
Until about 300 years ago, most people (in the UK, anyway) got their information by word of mouth.
The town crier carried a bell rather than a smartphone and a Twitter account, but it served a similar purpose.
Progressively, those who could read started getting their education from books and other such ‘authoritative’ sources. Their news, gossip and other information reached them from the early newspaper. This started a not-entirely-reliable relay of communication that finally reached those who could not read.
Caxton invented the printing press in the mid-1400s, some 200 years before the first newspaper as we know it today. What kept them, we ask?
Fast forward another 200 years and it was reportedly the American literary legend Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) who summarised the new reality thus. He said: ‘If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.’
The sarcastic saying: ‘If you read it in the newspapers, it must be true’ briefly gave way to: ‘If you found it on the internet, it must be true’. But while we were still laughing, that had already been usurped by: ‘If you hear it via social media, it must be true’.
That channel, rather than the newspapers or TV, has become the most dangerous source of disinformation.
This is because so many people are nodding and sharing, not questioning and laughing. It is not in plain sight. Instead, it is often insidious and under the radar, and its credibility is virtual.
It’s measured only by the number of people with whom the information has been shared. This is not unlike the old measure of circulation figures for the print media.
It is an unfiltered view. Therefore it’s likely different from the heavily filtered view we get from print and broadcast media. Again, it will be different from refereed journals and books on which we place reliance.
The primary barrier to understanding and truth was once the ability to read and write, coupled with decent access to information from a reasonably authoritative source. I fear that the speed of technological advancement in communications has far outstripped the pace at which the general population has been developing the skill to evaluate sometimes complex and unfamiliar information. This leaves them at the mercy of fake news of the most dangerous kind.
In a sense, we have come full circle. Before real news, there was word-of-mouth fake news, rumour and anecdote. Now, real news has itself been supplanted by digital fake news, rumour and anecdote.
A revealing study of the management and presentation of health information by the British tabloid and broadsheet newspapers was carried out in 2017. It was published the following year by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
Almost all of the newspaper headlines in the period under review exaggerated benefits or risks of medical treatments. They made false or unsubstantiated claims, or misrepresented the source material.
The conclusions included the statement: ‘The cumulative effect of everyday misreporting of medical stories in UK newspapers may not only serve to confuse the public but also have serious consequences for public health’.
And that was already happening before the coronavirus pandemic and the highly-charged socio-political and commercial agendas. These have pervaded healthcare reporting over the past year.
This unsavoury backdrop has been painfully evident in most of the questions raised at the televised coronavirus press briefings. The subsequent reporting of them in both print and broadcast media.
With so much misinformation and disinformation hanging in the air, we might have got better protection from wearing noise-reducing headphones and blindfolds, than from masks and visors.
One is tempted to wonder whether the public was better off (or worse off), or less (or more) worried in the blissful and uninformed ignorance in which they basked at the time of the Black Death in the mid-1400s or the Great Plague in the mid-1600s.
But here we are, trying to ease ourselves free of a ghastly pandemic. Yet, with a minority but still significant proportion of the population preferring not to be vaccinated.
As the rollout drops down through the age groups, it becomes clear that the uptake is getting progressively patchier. Even amongst those working in health, social and critical care and those who witness the ravages of COVID-19 up close.
I wholly respect any individual’s right of autonomy. Although, one cannot dispute that in declining to be vaccinated there are potential consequences for patients, colleagues, friends, family and society.
The recent threat to make it mandatory for elderly care home staff to have COVID-19 antibodies (however acquired) may yet be the thin end of a wedge that could be driven deeper into healthcare, and into various other occupations as time passes.
Until most of the world has antibodies, it may well be that many of the freedoms that we once all took for granted, will be reserved for those who can demonstrate that they do have antibodies. So much for civil liberty and the right to choose: it is not unconditional.
This kind of thinking is a short walk for those of us who are familiar with the hepatitis B requirements for those working in clinical dentistry. However, it has set all kinds of hares running in the less-informed lay press and across social media.
Employers are already waking up to the fact that they have some difficult decisions ahead. They owe a duty of care to all staff members, customers (aka patients) and third parties. As well as to individual employees who have a right of personal autonomy and may well be vocal in expressing it.
Both sides have the law behind them. The sound you can hear in the background is a lot of law firms rubbing their hands in anticipation of many good days ahead.
Route through the woods
To paraphrase Boris, these are not the same woods that we are ‘not out of’ just yet. They are woods that we are only just entering or approaching.
It is not entirely unreasonable to assume that a much greater proportion of the younger age cohorts will have been receiving their information ‘off-grid’ through social media rather than conventional channels. Where fake news, confusion and conflicting information abounds, many fake or extreme views abound too.
It remains to be seen whether or not these groups will be rolling up their sleeves quite as readily as the groups queuing to be vaccinated thus far.
Add to that the fact that the younger age cohorts will, on average, likely, be much more active socially. They will be less well placed to maintain social distancing. You have all the ingredients for an (im)perfect storm.
Then again, the risk presented by the unprotected minority gets progressively smaller as the protected majority grows. When the high emotion of the current pandemic starts to calm (hopefully), one starts to appreciate that there are many people who, for a variety of reasons, choose to do things – or not do things – that impact on others as well as themselves.
Not everyone is immunised against childhood diseases. Some people are obese and choose not to address that; others choose to smoke and are not denied care for conditions caused by that fact.
In truth, most of us are judgmental and yet quite picky about the things we choose to be judgmental over.
I almost hesitate to use the T-word. Does an individual’s right to choose ‘trump’ any increased collateral risk created for others, or vice versa? And what if the risk to others is more perceived than real, but is still genuinely felt? Does an individual have the right to be fearful of something without proper justification, after having been misinformed or disinformed?
Even thinking about that last question makes me quite fearful myself. In today’s world I would not rule out the possibility that they do.
But having started with a (possibly misattributed) quote from Mark Twain, feng shui demands that I should end with another (genuine) one.
For him, the internet would have seemed like improbable science fiction. Although, he was notably prescient where fake news itself was concerned. He said that: ‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’
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