Dangerously Divisive Disinformation Definitional Dilemma’s?

By Maxim Ijsebrands

When an author dares to open with a grandiose heading like that; he had better back that up with something substantive. It is then in good fortune that it is exactly that, which I am striving to do. Because this blogpost will try to shine some light on the absolute headache which is: trying to define disinformation. This, I will do by poking a bit at the definition that the European Union holds authoritative. “Verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, that can additionally also cause public harm”.[1] But before such endeavours can be undertaken, a little background information is warranted.

From Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Caesar’s embellished account of the “Gallic Wars” to the plethora of industries that fund “research” with the sole purpose of troubling the waters for the public. Intentionally spreading false information for some gain is as old as strategy itself. If It has always been present you might ask, why do governmental organisation care about it now? Well there have been a couple of developments in the recent centuries that have changed the potency of this tool. The first of which is the increased political, military and economic relevance of the masses. A situation that finds its origin in the (re)appearance of:

  • Total war (no longer do you have to defeat the nobility with his retinue to win a war, but an entire people),
  • Democracy,
  • And the consumer economy.

These phenomena paired with the emergence of the internet of things, creates a system in which a lot can be gained economically, politically and militarily, in a highly efficient, fast and cheap manner by using the tool of disinformation. This newfound informational power is perhaps justifiably experienced by the status quo as a threat to democracy and citizen health and security.[2]

Having mentioned that, what exactly is wrong with the EU definition of disinformation? Quite a lot, but being mindful of the limited space within this blog, I will focus on the fact that the definition is too inclusive:

As mentioned before in order to be labelled as “disinformation” a piece of information needs to be:

  1. verifiably false or misleading
  2. created, presented and disseminated
  3. for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.
  4. and be able to potentially cause public harm.

A religious text claiming that Mohammed ascended towards the moon from Jerusalem on a winged horse in the 7th century AD, would fall within this definition since we know that horses do not to defy gravity. Nor do we have any scientific reason to believe that gravity made an exception for this (in)famous Arabian merchant. “Miracles” as these are found within every holy book from the Bible to the Tanakh. This one finds its origins within the Koran. These miracles usually served as an enhancement of the prophet’s legitimacy, by proving his divinity. Economical and political gain was definitively something these claims enabled. The absolute lack of evidence for the validity of these claims, however, leaves no alternative than the probable possibility that someone intentionally disseminated this information to deceive a certain credulous public. You probably see where I am going with this. With the potential public harm- criterion being so vague that can’t not include religious texts. We arrive at the conclusion that religious claims about miracles probably fall within the EU-definition of disinformation.

Perhaps this Islamic example is too sensitive to be convincing. In that case I would implore you to switch out the Islam-specific example with any ridiculous claim from scientology or Christianity. The argument holds regardless. Now that we have identified all major religious texts as containing disinformation, I hope that it has become clear that this inclusive definition is not really desirable. Since this labelling alone could hit people’s freedom of religion, right to a private life and not to mention their freedom of expression.

As you may have noticed, I have interpreted the term “verifiably” as meaning verified by the current scientific consensus. Even though this is the only reasonable interpretation that came to mind, it brings a host of problems with it. As science aims to be constantly changing by new insights that don’t fit current hypotheses. This would make a disseminated claim that contradicts the current scientific body of thought; disinformation. As long as the creator had economic gain as a primary motivator and if the information could potentially bring about public harm. Regardless of the possibility that this information could be entirely correct. Wouldn’t the fear of being labelled a creator of disinformation create certain dogmas within our political and scientific bodies?

That being said, I am afraid that I must end on this. Governmental organisation labelling certain information as disinformation, is an immensely dangerous game to play and should be done very reluctantly, if it should be done at all. The current EU definition of disinformation is lacking severely due to its inclusiveness. I have just highlighted the tip of the iceberg. If Brussels wishes to continue upon this particular path, they should severely reduce the potency of this potentially powerful political pistol.

 

-Maxim IJsebrands 2020.

[1] DSM policy, Tackling online disinformation.

[2] DSM policy, Tackling online disinformation.

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