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What is disinformation — and how can you fight it?

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What is disinformation — and how can you fight it?
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If you are reading this article in a country where the state controls information or even censors DW, then I congratulate you for your courage and successful circumvention of censorship.

We are united by the conviction that we can only get a better picture of the world through diverse information from diverse sources. You bypass information control to freely form your own opinion.

But threats to and through information also lurk in free media markets where the value of qualitative information is deliberately inflated by the planned overproduction of information.

Freedom of information and media diversity are thus exploited to disturb people in free media environments. Important social discussions or democratic processes, such as elections, can be undermined in this way. This challenge is described as “disinformation campaigns,” i.e., the deliberate spread of false information to achieve a political goal.

Disinformation — an old phenomenon

Misleading a political opponent with disinformation is nothing new: Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek city-state of Athens is said to have lured the Persian King Xerxes into the Battle of Salamis with clever disinformation of its own weakness, thus decisively defeating him.

But the digital revolution has revolutionized a central motif of information in recent years: From a principally prevailing lack of information — both correct and incorrect — an abundance of communication and information signals has emerged.

Humanity had long lived with information scarcity. Humans always had too little knowledge about themselves and other peoples, nature and the social environment. But new information signals are very important, as they expand our knowledge of the world. A better understanding of reality ensures survival, limits dangers and creates new opportunities.

That has increased people’s interest in access to more information — often to the chagrin of religious, political or economic authorities. Inquisitiveness can endanger their power. This is precisely why authoritarian or totalitarian regimes use censorship to suppress undesired information.

The view of the world was to be manipulated with a controlled shortage of information. That’s why censorship is still part of the toolbox for controlling information in many dictatorships today.

Disinformation at work in free information spaces

Digital technologies have revolutionized communication and information: The principle of controlling information by suppressing it has become impossible in free media systems. For just over 10 years, smartphones, the Internet and “social media” have been ubiquitous. News races around the globe in real-time. Demonstrations, wars and any kind of political event spread almost live through thousands of photos, videos and texts.

What’s more, information is all-encompassing. Traffic information, restaurant ratings, private information, personal fitness data and much more can be accessed on smartphones or on smartwatches. The multitude of signals condenses into a noise of information for the individual.

People in free media markets have solved the problem of information scarcity with the communications revolution. There is no longer a shortage of quantitative information. On one hand, this generates huge opportunities to better understand the world. On the other, it has created an impossible-to-manage information overload. People are now faced with the individual challenge of identifying the important and relevant signals.

It is precisely this noise that modern disinformation campaigns take advantage of. They aim to distort knowledge about reality by deliberately overloading the information space. Whether the information is true or untrue is less important. Such “successful” disinformation campaigns can contain many different and contradictory pieces of information. Crucially, the deliberately amplified information noise inflates the value of qualitative information and real facts.

Disinformation threatens democracy

Modern disinformation campaigns are therefore not primarily about their content. The central assumption of the Enlightenment, that more free information leads to a better understanding of the world, is to be weakened.

But the state cannot solve this attack on the opinion-forming process within a democracy. Free media systems are based on freedom of opinion and expression. Governments may regulate content only within very narrow legal limits. A constitutional state can and must regulate “social media” platforms with their attention-centered algorithms. It can and must sanction malicious actors and create awareness of how bots and other non-authentic actions on social media can distort opinion.

But the rule of law cannot restrict diversity of content per se. According to the understanding of the Enlightenment, all knowledge is only knowledge for a limited time. A state-regulated monopoly on the truth about information would inevitably lead to a totalitarian society.

What you can do about it

We must accept that the information noise in free media systems will not go away. The new kind of disinformation has become an inevitable part of them — and it is going to stay that way. A free state can attempt to regulate (right, wrong or hyper-partisan) content only with great difficulty, but censorship would be the end result.

But what a government cannot do, you as an individual can: You can consciously limit the information noise for yourself. Make it clear what topics and interests are personally relevant to you. Put together your own collection of a few carefully selected and reliable media sources. Make sure you’re aware of a variety of opinions. And then tune out everything else. Especially if you use “social media.”

Be aware of which people or sources you pay attention to. By making these choices, you’re not just silencing the noise of information. You deprive the disinformers of your attention and disinformation campaigns of their viral power.

Ingo Mannteufel is an expert on cybersecurity and disinformation

Courtesy ofDW News

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