Misinformation: Oops, sorry! Then what?

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It’s a daily challenge, monitoring and sharing news about human rights abuses and other issues affecting citizens in various countries around the world, most of them repressive regimes. Solid news can be incredibly hard to obtain, and even more difficult to verify.  Trusted sources are valued like priceless treasures. There have been many occasions when a news report later turned out to have been misinformation (or disinformation) published in error. I recall one particular  instance when the original source of some misleading news was identified, and it caused a major upset among the community of online activists. I remember it well because I was the party responsible for exposing the source, an anonymous account with a small but aggressively loyal crew of supporters. That merry little band pulled no punches in rushing to defend their hero, while vilifying me for having dared to expose his/her role in the incident. Even though it was a harsh and painful lesson, I look back on it almost fondly now, because I learned more about who my real friends were in a few days of being attacked online than I could ever have hoped for otherwise.

I believe this particular group continue their hate campaigns against others posting human rights news up to the present day, although as far as I know, I have not been their target for at least two years, since I employed the very successful strategy of ignoring them completely. The reason I am not certain whether they are still at it is I also very successfully obliterated them from all my social media feeds, so I can’t know one way or the other. Being able to filter my incoming information streams is a must-have.  The occasional strangers who slip through the fence these days only seems to want to sell me 5,000 followers.

In the unfortunate event that any kind of attack, though hopefully not the worst form of net savagery, should be visited upon you, do not be conned by suggestions, or even your own instinct, encouraging you to continue to read their dross to “know what they are up to”. Unless you are the internet police, or intensely lonely /desperate / narcissistic, you don’t. And you will be much happier, confident and more productive if you resist any urge to get sucked into their warped little world.

Also worth noting that a real reputation is not that easily “destroyed”, and when it does happen, it is more often a case of suicide rather than assassination. In complete contrast to my real reputation – the one I have invested in by establishing ground rules and solid patterns of responsible behaviour, and through building and consolidating relationships – I don’t feel the same level of connection to my “online reputation” at all. This is simply because I didn’t set out to create it, I can never own it, and it seems to be bestowed or removed in a whimsical fashion by despicably superficial rep machines like Klout. Also, I have no deep desire to know what negative remarks complete strangers might make about me, assuming they even discuss me at all, which I doubt. The whole online reputation scenario can be likened to listening at keyholes.

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I’ve made or witnessed several similar discoveries since that early episode, but I lost my interest in sharing the information publicly, because of the chilling effect that a major distraction can have on the limited resources of what is essentially a loose network of geographically dispersed volunteers, spread across an expanding universe of social media platforms. There is a lot of work to do every day, and a definite lack of cohesion at times, leading to repetition and redundancy. Some of this is to our benefit, as we can never predict which platform, news source or user may be restricted at any time, and because multiple versions of the same data have a higher probability of reaching more targets in the great sloshing waves of information now drenching the world 24/7. By taking up the challenge of internet activism, we are battling unstable and ruthless regimes in an unpredictable, often hostile, environment, which houses many security risks. We are using information as our weapon, even though we can never guarantee that what we say won’t blow up in our faces. Our resolve is not in question, but what should we do to strengthen our defences?

Before we think about defence, I want to mention just three of the potential downsides to not sharing factual information about infiltrators, false news and fake accounts:

  • failing to share this knowledge weakens the network by leaving it vulnerable to further attacks or penetration
  • silence creates a false sense of security, on both sides, and limits awareness of the need for vigilance
  • any trusted source which has shared misinformation will find its trust level reduced, either permanently or temporarily. Even if they later apologise,  they have been compromised, however rare and however briefly.

Of course, there could be some upsides, for example:

  • Staying quiet about being the victim of an incident means not having to divert your precious time explaining or discussing it
  • Silence also preserves the positive reputation of those affected; a form of short term damage control with a hidden medium to long term risk
  • Not sharing information means not giving away hints and tips  to prospective malicious actors, or providing feedback to the perpetrators

There are defensive tactics that can be deployed, such as sharing useful information, establishing procedures or best practice, and identifying reliable sources. Even then, there will be times when we take a hit, and a false report penetrates the network. As the flow of information increases, so does the very real risk of bad information – until it begins to feel like its happening all the time. One such incident happened today, when a reliable source published a report about a high profile prisoner of conscience, which they then had to rescind just a couple of hours later.

Today’s event was no different from scores of others I could list, and some of them have been very high profile indeed, and even evolved into “news” stories themselves. In every case, it is always acknowledged that those involved could have acted differently. We could have used patience, by discounting the initial report, or at least waiting for confirmation from a second trusted source. Even if the original source didn’t wait, those that shared the report – including myself -could have done so. It took only a couple of hours for today’s story to be refuted. That’s not long, in the scheme of things, if you’re supporting prisoners who have been rotting in jail for years. I think this clarity of hindsight, although too late for this one example, is suggesting a good strategy for us all to adopt in future.

I think I would like to see the original source of this story identified by the website, if not named, and every effort made to neutralise the spread of false news by sharing enough details of what happened and how, so that everyone can learn and benefit from the experience. My only reservation is the possibility of draining energy from the network by creating an unnecessary diversion.

So we need this to happen without turning it into any kind of witch hunt or blame game drama. We need just enough facts to increase awareness, raise consciousness and send a clear message to anyone planning to spread fake news, that we are arming ourselves against such acts in future. Failure to do this creates an additional risk, of less reputable sources – websites, FB pages, blogs, Twitter accounts, individuals, media outlets – deciding to boost their exposure by making up just any story, then withdrawing it later, once the desired effect and extra attention or following has been obtained, secure in the feeling that it will just blow over and be forgotten. Add to this the risk of spreading malware or recording user information using malicious links in a sensational false news item, and we are facing an even bigger challenge.

The last and biggest threat to anyone sharing false information in future may come from an entirely different direction. Note the increasingly strict rules, restrictions and penalties being called for – and in some countries, being applied – against internet users who “overstep” these new boundaries, which are being retroactively installed along our shiny electronic frontiers.  These important security reasons tend to convince me that it is desirable to release at least some details about sources and methods of distributing false information, as a means of building capacity and resilience in our networks.

Even if this idealistic situation does not come to pass, one thing I consistently wish for is to see everyone that happened to be involved in spreading false information in any way, however small (retweeters and likers, I’m looking at you) invest at least as much time and effort in issuing a correction or an update and undoing those likes and retweets. Those that do, will enjoy the added benefit of having enhanced their real reputation.

Caveat: I am only presenting my opinion here – I didn’t take any time to research other points of view or canvass my friends and associates for their ideas, but I would really like to see this topic opened up into further discussion, so please do leave a comment if you would like to contribute.