Disinformation and Discernment – OEB to Tackle ‘Fake News’

These days, it seems as though ‘fake news’ is everywhere. It is nothing new, though. In fact, it has been with us for a very long time – at least since the invention of printing and probably for much longer.


By Harold Elletson


One of history’s greatest peddlars of fake news also happened to be one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Ben Franklin. In 1782, he printed a fake supplement to an edition of the Boston Independent Chronicle and sent it to various colleagues, who he was confident would ensure its circulation among a British readership.


The main article in the supplement told of a letter from the chiefs of the Senneka Indians to the British Governor of Canada, for onward transmission to King George III. The article claimed that Britain’s native American allies were indulging in the wholesale scalping of colonists and the American troops defending them. It even purported to reproduce the text of the letter, which it claimed was attached to a large packet of scalps, intended as a gift for the King.


“We send these scalps over the water to the great King,” the letter said, “that he may regard them and be refreshed; and that he may see our faithfulness in destroying his enemies, and be convinced that his presents have not been made to ungrateful people.”


The article, which listed the various scalps and their provenance – soldiers, farmers, women, children, unborn babies ripped from their mothers’ wombs etc – was gruesome enough to catch the attention of several British editors, as Franklin had intended, and it was reproduced in a number of British newspapers. Franklin’s purpose was to stir up a wave of indignation at the methods employed by the King’s allies and to engender sympathy for the American colonists.


Franklin’s fake news is a classic example of a disinformation campaign. It was designed to undermine morale, sap confidence and destroy civilian support for Britain’s war in America. Once he had produced his fake article, Franklin took great pains to ensure its distribution to the widest possible audience, sending it to his contacts in the media and in Britain with heavy hints that it should be reprinted and redistributed. It was not until 70 years after its publication, long after the United States had secured their independence from Britain, that the American authorities admitted the story was entirely false.


Today, fake news is difficult to avoid and some commentators even encourage us to believe that we should accept it, as we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era. From politics to commerce, disinformation, distorted facts and fake news are rife and increasingly accepted as a legitimate part of an election campaign or a marketing strategy. The internet, which has brought incalculable benefits in increasing global access to information, has also created unprecedented opportunities for the distortion of facts, the suppression of truth and the telling of lies.


“A lie,” as Churchill said, “can be half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” In the internet age, however, the situation is much more serious. Distribution is easy and quick. A fake news story can be distributed globally in seconds, entering the media mainstream within hours and often remaining unchecked or uncontested for days. These days, a lie can travel the whole way round the world before the truth has even begun to think about getting out of bed and going anywhere near its boots.


This opportunity has not been lost on some of those with a penchant for cynicism and a determined political agenda. The Kremlin, for example, has been running a well-resourced and carefully planned campaign of information warfare in Germany and other European countries for at least the last three years. The aim of the campaign has been to weaken Moscow’s European opponents and, in doing so, to secure political and strategic advantages.


The so-called ‘Lisa affair’ was a part of this campaign. Lisa was a thirteen-year-old ethnic Russian girl from Berlin, who was allegedly abducted by a gang of refugees, held prisoner for thirty hours and repeatedly raped. The Berlin police quickly concluded that the girl’s story was false but, after it was reported by a Russian news organisation and redistributed through social media by the Russian diaspora in Germany, it was soon picked up by the mainstream news media. Its effect was to encourage widespread protests and demonstrations, undermining the German government’s position on welcoming refugees and damaging the Chancellor, Angela Merkel.


Concern about the possible effect of disinformation and fake news has now become so widespread that both NATO and the European Union, as well as many individual governments, have established special task forces to deal with the problem.


However, according to the organisers of a workshop on the theory and practice of disinformation, which will be held at OEB’s MidSummit in Reykjavik on June 8th, the whole issue is a symptom of a much bigger problem – to which education is the only viable solution.


“The problem in our internet age, when we are overloaded with information and have a seemingly limitless supply of sources for it, is that it is extremely difficult for most people to sort the wheat from the chaff,” says Chris Donnelly, Director of the Institute for Statecraft. “What we need is to focus on discernment. Above all, it is a task for educators and technologists. We need to equip people with the skills they need to understand context, see patterns, question sources and attributions, and make correct judgments about how news and information are likely to have been distorted, manipulated or controlled. This is likely to be one of the key skills for the twenty-first century.”


The workshop on ‘Disinformation and Discernment,’ which will focus on both the nature of the problem and new ways of responding to it, will also be joined by Elvira Perez Vallejos of the University of Nottingham. The organisers say that it “will launch a new dialogue about how technology assisted learning can contribute to the dissemination of new tools and skills for the information age.”


For more information or to reserve a place at MidSummit, please visit http://www.oebmidsummit.com/

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