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Disinformation is a demand-side — not a supply-side — problem ™

And neither fact-checking nor debunking are the solution

Just over a year ago I attended Misinfocon, in London. It was brilliant. You can hear interviews I recorded with some of the delegates in this episode of The Disinformation Age podcast.

The Disinformation Age — fighting for truth in a post-fake news world — interviews from Misinfocon

They’re doing good work. But something changed for me, as a result of that experience. I became much less interested in the vectors of disinformation (bots, bad actors hiding behind pseudonymous personas, even the Russians and their infamous Internet Research Agency teams of trolls). I began to sense that it was a mistake to believe that fact-checking and debunking would solve the ‘fake news’ problem.

A year of ‘literature review’ later (reading and listening to a lot of other people’s work) and I am convinced of the following proposition.

Disinformation is a demand-side — not a supply-side — problem ™

Fact-checking, validating and debunking are essential activities, if we are to maintain sight of reality and sift it from fiction. But it carries with it a big risk; amplification of the very message you want to quell.

This is because the purpose of disinformation is not really to persuade anyone of false facts. It’s to create a feeling. A sense that there’s something up. Generally among people who already have a feeling that something is up.

And the problem is that most efforts to explain away bullshit stories just end up propagating them to a bigger audience. They contribute to the feeling that something is up. They hear about this thing that everyone (typically the ‘libs’ or the ‘media’) is up in arms about and they feel that something is up more, not less.

Some of the best work explaining this is by Jonathan Albright. Read his explainer on the seeding of keywords on the SºRºS-⊂⟑r⟑v⟑n tale — and how well-intended efforts to rebut it merely helped the conspiracy go viral.

A similar thing happened just before I posted this. An important development affecting the Mueller inquiry into the 2016 US Presidential Election (the firing of special counsel Mueller’s boss, no less) was all but pushed onto the back burner because everyone was arguing about a video clip. And whether it had been speeded up, altered…faked in some way.

All that debunking of a video clip took up massively more energy and attention, at least online, than the replacement of Jeff Sessions with Matthew Whitaker as attorney general and all that potentially flows from that.

There has been an explosion of well-intentioned civic investigative effort on disinformation since the twin lie-driven phenomena of Brexit and Trump changed our world. But we’re in a culture war, not an argument over facts.

Be aware that the other side is clever. It knows how to seed a narrative. And now it seems to know how to persuade unwitting carriers of the disinformation virus to spread the infection.

They want you to debunk. That way, you’re talking about it.

The audiences for fake news stories want an excuse to reinforce their feeling that something is up. Disinformation is appetite-led — not really a question of supply. Try not to be the trojan horse that takes the stories they like best right into their midst.


Disinformation is a demand-side — not a supply-side — problem ™