Inaccurate Data, Half-Truths, Disinformation, and Mob Violence

Uma Kalkar
Jan 14 · 10 min read

By Fiona Cece, Uma Kalkar, and Stefaan Verhulst

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Image from Wikipedia.

The mob attack on the US Congress was alarming and the result of various efforts to undermine the trust in and legitimacy of longstanding democratic processes and institutions. In particular, the use of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation to spread hate and division is considered a key driver behind last week’s attack. Altering data to support conspiracy theories or challenging and undermining the credibility of trusted data sources to allow for alternative narratives to flourish, if left unchallenged, has consequences — including the increased acceptance and use of violence both off-line and on-line.

Everyone working on data and information needs to be aware of the implications of altering or misusing data (including election results) to support malicious objectives. The January 6th riot is unfortunately not a unique event, nor is it contained to the US. Below, we provide a curation of findings and readings that illustrate the global danger of inaccurate data, half-truths, and willful disinformation.

Readings and Annotations

Al-Zaman, Md. Sayeed. “Digital Disinformation and Communalism in Bangladesh.” China Media Research 15, no. 2 (2019): 68–76.

  • Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman, Lecturer at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, discusses how the country’s increasing number of “netizens” are being manipulated by online disinformation and inciting violence along religious lines. Social media helps quickly spread Anti-Hindu and Buddhist rhetoric, inflaming religious divisions between these groups and Bangladesh’s Muslim majority, impeding possibilities for “peaceful coexistence.”

Banaji, Shakuntala, and Ram Bhat. “How Anti-Muslim Disinformation Campaigns in India Have Surged during COVID-19.” Web log. LSE Covid-19 Blog (blog). London School of Economics and Political Science, September 30, 2020.

  • This article examines why disinformation campaigns, focused on hate against Muslims in India, have been on the rise during the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic added a new dimension to the hate speech that has long existed in communities and has been further exacerbated by disinformation narratives on social media.

Banaji, Shakuntala, and Ram Bhat. “WhatsApp Vigilantes: An exploration of citizen reception and circulation of WhatsApp misinformation linked to mob violence in India.” London School of Economics and Political Science, 2019.

  • London School of Economics and Political Science Associate Professor Shakuntala Banaji and Researcher Ram Bhat articulate how discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and Adivasis) have been targeted by peer-to-peer communications spreading allegations of bovine related issues, child-snatching, and organ harvesting, culminating in violence against these groups with fatal consequences.

Funke, Daniel, and Susan Benkelman. “Misinformation is inciting violence around the world. And tech platforms don’t seem to have a plan to stop it.” Poynter, April 4, 2019.

  • Misinformation leading to violence has been on the rise worldwide. PolitiFact writer Daniel Funke and Susan Benkelman, former Director of Accountability Journalism at the American Press Institute, point to mob violence against Romas in France after rumors of kidnapping attempts circulated on Facebook and Snapchat; the immolation of two men in Puebla, Mexico following fake news spread on Whatsapp of a gang of organ harvesters on the prowl; and false kidnapping claims sent through Whatsapp fueling lynch mobs in India.

Kyaw, Nyi Nyi. “Facebooking in Myanmar: From Hate Speech to Fake News to Partisan Political Communication.” ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute, no. 36 (2019): 1–10.

  • In the past decade, the number of plugged-in Myanmar citizens has skyrocketed to 39% of the population. All of these 21 million internet users are active on Facebook, where much political rhetoric occurs. Widespread fake news disseminated through Facebook has led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of misleading, inflammatory headlines.

Posetti, Julie, Nermine Aboulez, Kalina Bontcheva, Jackie Harrison, and Silvio Waisbord. “Online violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2020.

  • The survey focuses on incidence, impacts, and responses to online violence against women journalists that are a result of “coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech. There were 901 respondents, hailing from 125 countries, and covering various ethnicities.

Rajeshwari, Rema. “Mob Lynching and Social Media.” Yale Journal of International Affairs, June 1, 2019.

  • District Police Chief of Jogulamba Gadwal, India, and Yale World Fellow (’17) Rema Rajeshwari writes about how misinformation and disinformation are becoming a growing problem and security threat in India. The fake news phenomenon has spread hatred, fueled sectarian tensions, and continues to diminish social trust in society.

Taylor, Luke. “Covid-19 Misinformation Sparks Threats and Violence against Doctors in Latin America.” BMJ (2020): m3088.

  • Journalist Luke Taylor details the many incidents of how disinformation campaigns across Latin America have resulted in the mistreatment of health care workers during the Coronavirus pandemic. Examining case studies from Mexico and Colombia, Taylor finds that these mis/disinformation campaigns have resulted in health workers receiving death threats and being subject to acts of aggression.

“The Danger of Fake News in Inflaming or Suppressing Social Conflict.” Center for Information Technology and Society — University of California Santa Barbara, n.d.

  • The article provides case studies of how fake news can be used to intensify social conflict for political gains (e.g., by distracting citizens from having a conversation about critical issues and undermining the democratic process).

Ward, Megan, and Jessica Beyer. “Vulnerable Landscapes: Case Studies of Violence and Disinformation” Wilson Center, August 2019.

  • This article discusses instances where disinformation inflamed already existing social, political, and ideological cleavages, and ultimately caused violence. Specifically, it elaborates on instances from the US-Mexico border, India, Sri Lanka, and during the course of three Latin American elections.

We welcome other sources we have may missed — please share any suggested additions with us at datastewards [at] thegovlab.org or The GovLab on Twitter.

Data Stewards Network

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