Wednesday 19 June 2019

'Misinformation' has been doing the rounds for decades, but Trump takes it to a whole new level

US president Donald Trump. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP
US president Donald Trump. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Jason O'Sullivan

Following Donald Trump's presidential inauguration last Friday, the newly-appointed White House press secretary Sean Spicer lambasted journalists for what he claimed was "deliberately false reporting" regarding the attendance figures at the ceremony, and declared "this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period!".

This was Mr Spicer's first official press briefing and his lecturing tone to the attending press was rightly received both in a critical and ridiculing manner, particularly given his inaccurate claims on crowd sizes, which were easily disproved through available aerial photographic evidence circulating on social media.

It is alarming, however, that despite such clear evidence confirming the disparity in numbers between former president Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009 and Mr Trump's in 2017, Mr Spicer (and more so the new presidential regime) persisted in knowingly relaying incorrect information to the world's press in an unashamedly and blatant attempt to reconstruct the truth - in other words, circulate 'misinformation'.

To compound such falsehoods, Mr Trump's senior adviser Kellyanne Conway attempted to defend and spin such nonsensical statements by claiming that Mr Spicer "gave alternative facts".

Of late, the term misinformation has become commonplace within the political arena and is in itself a sad indictment of the way politics has developed in recent years.

The Brexit propaganda machine utilised for the 'Leave' side during last year's EU referendum campaign, which saw the UK electorate voting to leave the union, aptly demonstrated the powerful effect misinformation can achieve if orchestrated to reach the right target audience.

Conservative MP Michael Gove, a talisman for the 'Vote Leave' side, had said during a Sky News interview before the vote that Britons had "had enough of experts" - such rhetoric was clearly unsubstantiated, but was utilised to fuel doubts about the role of experts and their societal importance.

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage admitted the day after the shock result that it had been a "mistake" to promise that £350m (€405m) a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK backed a Brexit vote, after this monumental funding pledge was used as a key influencing tactic throughout the campaign.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair apologised publicly last year following the damning report from the Chilcot inquiry, which heavily criticised Mr Blair for leading Britain to war in Iraq in 2003. The report noted that Mr Blair had exaggerated the case for war in Iraq and that Britain's intelligence agencies produced "flawed information".

The above examples, to name but a few, demonstrate that the use of covert misinformation is not a new phenomenon and has been the subject of much research in previous decades.

One prominent expert on this topic is Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University in California, who coined the word "agnotology" to describe the study of "deliberate propagation of ignorance".

Mr Proctor's initial research into the study of agnotology arose from the communicative tactics big tobacco companies deployed in the 1970s to allegedly create doubt in the minds of the public about the harmful effects of smoking. Such confusion and deceit was aimed at obscuring the facts for the benefit of the ever-lucrative tobacco industry.

In a more modern context, occasional dissenting and unverified data reports that question the validity of legitimate facts relating to climate change and the imminent need for protective government measures could be linked with such deliberate dissemination of mass ignorance for unscrupulous corporate gain.

Large-scale corporate self-interest enables global companies and brands to fund mass-manipulative propaganda in a more covert and sophisticated manner than ever before.

Through the creation of biased think-tanks that have the potential to influence government policy or through the promotion of online bloggers who gain financially for their impartial support of industry positions or products, all play an important role in shaping public opinion and swaying the political agenda.

There is little doubt that Mr Trump is unlike most modern-day politicians and he has prided himself on being a businessman first. This exception to the rule can be attractive for some of the electorate, who have grown tired or apathetic towards the political elite.

What is most unusual, however, is that in the past such misinformation was carried out in a guised and guarded fashion so as to avoid unwanted detection or scrutiny by the media or various interest groups, which affirmed one's assumptions that such falsehoods were inherently wrong at some level on the part of the instigators of such spin.

On the contrary, the attempt to overtly contradict clear evidence of previous crowd data, as done this week by the new Trump presidential team, sends a powerful message that the truth may be challenged and facts altered to suit Trump's manifesto and future policies. It can be quite innocuous where the truth is openly altered for something as irrelevant as mere crowd numbers, but can be fatal when orchestrated for acts to justify war or the use of nuclear weapons.

It is a worrying time for world politics and international affairs, which now demand an even greater need for journalistic endeavour to uphold the truth and maintain ethical integrity.

Similarly, an even greater role must be placed on all citizens to ensure they take responsibility for their civic duties in questioning such misinformation, and strive to seek the truth where possible, so as to ensure that justice and liberty prevail in these turbulent times.

Jason O'Sullivan, is a solicitor and public affairs consultant at J.O.S Solicitors

Irish Independent

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