Strengthening Resilience to Disinformation - A Solution
New Moves to Understand and Deal with Disinformation
I had hoped that I could leave the “disinformation” topic alone for a while and focus upon more positive and enlightened subjects. However, I was referred to a webpage from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I have adapted the heading to the page as the title for this post.
The webpage starts:
“The way that people access and consume information has radically changed in the last few decades. The ease and speed of access to digitised information has come with numerous benefits. However, these technologies can be used in ways that cause harm. Where individuals or groups communicate to shape public perception in ways that may be manipulative, deceptive or misleading, this can be referred to as ‘disinformation’.”
It goes on to note that the effects of disinformation and misinformation are of concern to New Zealanders and those concerns are high on the list of national security threats people felt would likely occur in both the short and long term.
The message advises that
“The Government is seeking to support a “whole-of-society” approach to build understanding and resilience against the harms of disinformation, that can be led primarily by those outside government. This approach recognises the need to maintain an open internet and uphold the right to freedom of expression.”
Three initiatives are proposed
1. Convening a “civil society-led group” to scope longer-term work
2. Working to design a one-off fund to support community projects and organisations in helping to build New Zealand’s resilience and capacity to respond to disinformation.
3. Commissioning public research and analysis into the problem.
What is the purpose of this? The Request for Proposal (RFP) states as follows:
“The government is seeking to support a “whole-of-society” approach to build understanding and resilience against the harms of disinformation, that can be led primarily by those outside government. This approach includes commissioning reporting to build a transparent empirical foundation for any policy response; enhancing community capacity and capability outside of government; and promoting civil society leadership.”
It should be remembered that it was the same Department that in 2020 suggested that
“Ideally efforts to counter mis/disinformation should be led outside of government by the media, civil society, NGOs, academia and the private sector. Several leading academics, research organisations such as Te Pūnaha Matatini, and other organisations such as Netsafe and InternetNZ have already been very active, and we are exploring how to support them and lift their capacity in this work.
Oversight of mis/disinformation is a sensitive issue, as any public commentary or perceived control of a ‘counter-disinformation effort’ can reinforce conspiracy meta-narratives about state manipulation of information and give legitimacy to those claiming an erosion of free speech. For this reason, we would not recommend formal allocation of disinformation responsibilities or the identification of a government spokesperson. A group of relevant Ministers with whom significant issues can be highlighted and public communications approaches approved will, however, be important to ensure appropriate proactive oversight of official activity in this area”
One can only speculate that the current proposals are yet another example of the State “distancing” itself – at least as far as public perception is concerned – from interference with matters of expression whilst at the same time driving, indirectly, the campaign against disinformation.
And what is seen as the final outcome? The RFP states:
“The reporting produced as a result of this RFP is intended to be released publicly. DPMC is aware that this kind of work is a matter of evolving best practice, and while we will scrutinise proposed solutions carefully, we are realistic about the need to support a developing community of local practitioners.”
There are a few issues that arise out of these proposals.
1. The opportunity for citizens or groups to put their names forward to help is obscure. It is located on the Government tender page. I would have thought that there would be a link but there is not. Input is not sought from individuals. A certain level of organisation and structure is required of applicants. Institutions are clearly the target. I would suggest that at the end of the day the “civil society-led group” will probably be appointees which will probably include well-known groups who frequently appear in the “Disinformation” space. Outcomes in such a situation become predictable.
It should be remembered that in its paper “Dangerous speech, misogyny, and democracy: A review of the impacts of dangerous speech since the end of the Parliament Protest” (August 2022) the Disinformation Project recommended:
The establishment of a transparent, outside government entity to provide research, analysis and advice for communities, civil society organisations, agencies and independent crown authorities on information disorders and their impacts in Aotearoa New Zealand.
I suggested that this recommendation was clearly a pitch by the Project to be an “outside of government” entity. As I observed – the best way to get a job is to suggest that there is a need for it.
When one reads through the Request for Proposal (RFP) documents it becomes clear that the Disinformation Project will be a likely appointee.
2. At no time – and indeed throughout the whole campaign against disinformation- have any concrete examples of disinformation been provided. Rather the all-embracing catch-words of dis and misinformation and conspiracy theories are flung about without any clear examples. It would be helpful to have examples rather than the use of buzz-words like hate speech, misogyny and the rhetoric that emerges from the Disinformation Project.
3. Although the terms misinformation and disinformation are defined (on the definition of disinformation see the next item) there is ample scope for “mission creep”. The RFP states
“This RFP is primarily focused on disinformation, but acknowledges that reporting may cover a wider spectrum of false and misleading information.”
4. There is in fact a very simple solution to the “disinformation problem”. It works like this. Let us start with the definition advanced by the DPMC
“Disinformation is false or modified information knowingly and deliberately shared to cause harm or achieve a broader aim.”
Let’s cut through the rubbish of bureaucrat-speak (There is the Plain Language Act 2022 statute on the books but reading the RFP one would not know it) The Plain Language word for disinformation is lies. Call it for what it is.
The business about sharing knowingly or deliberately adds nothing. Information is passive unless it is published. The same is the case with disinformation. It is axiomatic it should be shared. Otherwise it is neither information nor disinformation
What is the antidote and antithesis of lies – the truth. John 8:31, writing in another context, made it clear – “the Truth will set you free”. That is how you “strengthen resilience to disinformation.”
Rather than engage in a complex bureaucratic process – for that is what is envisaged – simply use counter-speech (advocated by Nadine Strossen in her recent visit to New Zealand) to address the lies and counter lies with plain unvarnished truth.
Sadly however I think the agenda may go deeper than merely countering disinformation and reference is made in the opening statement to the use of information technologies as a means of disseminating disinformation.
My concern is that this is a covert attempt to regulate the means of distribution of information – a blunt instrument approach to a subtle and nuanced problem.
Certainly that is what has been advocated in some of the papers released by the Disinformation Project.
In its RFP the DPMC states
“The protection and promotion of human rights, including freedom of expression, a diverse range of views, and rights to privacy, are critical to this work programme. Any solutions must proactively incorporate structures and safeguards designed to build public trust and confidence and enable robust testing of data collection, analysis, and conclusions.”
This is encouraging. In addition the RFP states:
“We do not want solutions oriented toward intervention in disinformation, reporting particular instances of disinformation to platforms or governments, or censorship.”
The ultimate goal is stated to understand the problem of disinformation in New Zealand, to continue that understanding, to encourage future reporting, to maintain independence of reporting from Government and to confine the scope of the work to monitoring the problem and insights into it.
In the final analysis the target of this proposal is the transmission of information. It must always be a matter of concern when the State involves itself in this activity. We already have significant regulation of the means of communication of information (radio and TV licences as examples) and a means of managing and controlling content (the Classification Office and the Broadcasting Standards Authority as examples).
Because “disinformation” is acknowledged to be a problem occurring mainly in the digital space – the Internet which is largely unregulated – it seems to me that understanding the distribution of this form of content is a prelude to an attempt to regulate this means of distribution of information – hence my earlier expressed concern.
Watch this space.