The media’s role in the age of deceit

Feb 23, 2022
Disinformation Mural in Miami, Florida
Disinformation is murder: world statistics show that Covid death rates are far higher among the unvaccinated, many of whom are influenced by lies spread by others. (Image: Flickr / Terence Faircloth)

The complicity of the media  in disseminating false information  is a central part of the modern phenomenon. The lie factories cannot flourish without obedient messengers to carry their deceptions.

A plague of lies is engulfing democracy and governments worldwide. It poses a danger far greater than most people imagine.

Perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to strike humanity is the plague of deliberate misinformation, mass delusion and unfounded beliefs which is engulfing 21st Century society.

Whether generated by the fossil fuels lobby, certain media or other corporate interests, the anti-vaccine lobby, religious fanatics, political cynics, ideological extremists, well-meaning simpletons or nutcase conspiracists, a global deluge of utter nonsense is rapidly inundating the human species.

In the short run it may seem irritating, even occasionally amusing. In the long run, it lays the ground for the collapse of civilization and the failure of governments to arrest it, in the face of spreading public ignorance of the risks we face and what must be done to overcome them.

“This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens,” warned the authors of the Doomsday Clock’s 2021 report.    The dissemination of lies increased the danger from established threats like nuclear weapons, climate change and pandemic disease, they added.

“Misinformation has reached crisis proportions,” Jevin West and  Carl Bergstrom declared in a recent  study.     “It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision making, endangers the well-being of the planet and threatens public health. Public support for policies to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is being undercut by misinformation, leading to the World Health Organization’s “infodemic” declaration .”Ultimately, misinformation undermines collective sense making and collective action. We cannot solve problems of public health, social inequity, or climate change without also addressing the growing problem of misinformation,” they concluded.

Disinformation is murder: world statistics show that Covid death rates are far higher among the unvaccinated, many of whom are influenced by lies spread by others. Some researchers describe the flood of nonsense as a new form of warfare, declared by one part of humanity against the whole – including themselves – using the global internet.  “Cyber-enabled information warfare has also become an existential threat in its own right,” says Herbert Lin.     Dr Steven Novella, editor of the journal Science-Based Medicine, adds “It’s also clear that social media has given psychopaths and con artists the keys to the kingdom. It now pays, big, with little upfront investment, to spend a lot of time and energy crafting and spreading misinformation online.”

Production of misinformation has attained global industrial scale, with the fossil fuels industry funding a worldwide campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars to mislead the public and governments over the dangers of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in it.  Through purpose-built ‘lie factories’, the $7 trillion petro-sector (coal, oil, gas and petrochemicals) has sought to misinform, manipulate and sabotage world efforts to rein in climate change by corrupting governments, distorting public discourse and circulating falsehoods.  Its methods, adopted from those of the tobacco industry, are detailed in a report by researchers from Harvard, Bristol and George Mason Universities.    A study by Oxford University revealed evidence of formally organized social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, describing it as “a critical threat to public life” that was now “big business”.

“Antiscience has emerged as a dominant and highly lethal force, and one that threatens global security, as much as do terrorism and nuclear proliferation,” warned Dr Peter Hotez in a Scientific American article calling for a global effort to combat anti-science.

The complicity of the media – world as well as national and local, traditional as well as social media – in disseminating false information under the false flag of ‘balanced reporting’ – is a central part of the modern phenomenon. The lie factories cannot flourish without obedient messengers to carry their deceptions.

Some media have even made the spreading of misinformation part of their business model, gambling that a flood of exotic nonsense will attract ‘more eyeballs’ (audience share) to their TV and internet platforms, which the corporation then converts into money by attracting corporate advertising. Thus, the C21st media have made the remarkable discovery that misinformation is more profitable than telling the truth. Over time, they cultivate huge, loyal audiences who either love conspiracy or are just more credulous and ill-informed than most people about what they are told.

Of course, humans have been lying about one another for millennia – the spreading of nonsense is nothing new. What has changed is that human civilization as a whole is now at risk from ten catastrophic threats – and that the media tools for spreading misinformation are very much more powerful. Specialist data firms now analyse mass audiences in detail in order to target the most gullible with the most attractive misinformation for their mindset.

For around 300 years, science has sought to dilute the human tendency to delusion by presenting an objective, tested view of the world and how it works – and constantly re-testing it to make sure it is correct. No other belief takes such an approach. That groundwork of fact and understanding, ushered in by The Enlightenment, built the greatest achievements of civilization. Now, in a new Dark Age, fantasy, superstition, delusion and denial are in the ascendant once again.

The motives behind the spreading of lies and conspiracies are many, chiefly monetary greed, political advantage, malice and ruinous ignorance. Russia, for example, stands accused of using misinformation to sabotage American politics  , while the US Republican Party appears to have embraced misinformation because its voters are so open to it.    By such means democracy worldwide is being paralysed, with governments unable to move for fear of offending large minorities of the misled.

The problem of mass delusion is compounded by accumulating scientific evidence that humans are today less intelligent than they were a generation or two ago. Recent research has found that human IQ has declined by around 13 points since the mid-1970s.  While the cause is still uncertain,  the fall in human intelligence coincides with a sharp increase in nerve poisons in the living environment, leading to a surge in mental conditions, especially in the young. This suggests that humans today, due to their chemically-damaged brains, may be more easily misled than were their parents or grandparents.

If humans are losing lost the capacity to reason, or have become addicted to fantasy, then there is no saving them in an existential emergency – because so many will not grasp it is real or do anything to prevent it. Indeed, they may actively seek to undermine attempts by humanity to save itself.

Global misinformation may seem a modest threat in comparison with, say, all-out nuclear war – but it is no less deadly in the long run because it disables the very quality on which humans most pride themselves. The ability to think, understand and act rationally. And thus, to save themselves.

 

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