We’re experts at ignoring adverts: slogans on billboards, jingles on TV – we tend to dismiss them as hype. But attempts to manipulate us are becoming more effective and difficult to avoid.

From libellous Roman emperors two thousand years ago to “deepfake” videos today, false information holds the power to form public opinion and change the course of history. How can we defend ourselves and others from deliberate disinformation?

What is disinformation?

Not all misleading information is malicious. It might be satire, or just a joke. Many British TV viewers were taken in by a news report on spaghetti trees on 1 April 1957, becoming sceptical only when told to grow their own tree by placing spaghetti into a tin of tomatoes.

Sensational content known as clickbait aims to lure readers to a webpage. The site may make money simply from displaying ads - or by selling information about our browsing behaviour. Look out for ‘too good to be true’ headlines like ‘Drink this miracle herbal potion and stop feeling tired!’, or for excited promises: ‘You’ll never believe this…’

Or we might be targeted by a scam, with emails supposedly from stranded friends requesting an emergency loan, or a text message from a parcel delivery company demanding a redelivery fee.

In recent times, a number of unverified and untrue claims and stories have circulated among the Jamat. These have been designed to capture our attention, provoke an emotional reaction, and make us want to share with others. If you happen to receive this type of content, pause, and think about the source and its accuracy before forwarding on.

Malicious disinformation

Disinformation is false information designed to mislead people. Some societies today seem polarised about everything from climate change to vaccines. Scepticism about proven narratives is widespread and conspiracy theories abound. This has led to extreme views which a few decades ago might have remained marginal but can now take hold rapidly. Propaganda churned out by a few influencers is spread with one click by thousands of social media users. Fake accounts, often run by automated software called bots, multiply the problem.

Meanwhile, some seize the opportunity to deny that facts even exist, calling them ‘fake news’.

Digital self-defence

Three ways to avoid being tricked are to find more reliable information; understand how to evaluate what we see; and finally to be aware of our own reactions.

Find out more

The internet offers us an unprecedented amount of verifiable information. We can cross-check against news stories, academic sites, online archives and image banks, educating ourselves on interpreting information and arguments.

Sometimes an image is real, but misattributed to another place, time, or situation in order to construct a lie. Or a statistic may be based on data selected to give a misleading fragment of the whole picture. When it becomes hard to judge, we can consult a fact checking site; these may geolocate and date images and video, check for digital manipulation, look up original records to verify or disprove claims, and perhaps trace the content back to its creator, whether human or bot.

Who benefits?

Second, consider who has created the content and why.

  • Do they have access to verifiable facts? What is their expertise on this subject? What do they want us to feel or do as a result? How do they benefit? If the source and evidence are not transparent, be wary. 

  • Are they using emotive language to engage our heart rather than our brain? Are they appealing to fear or anger? Read up on the principles of rhetoric, persuasion, and how to spot flawed logic. If content is emotive, unsourced, makes an extreme claim, or wants us to change our attitude or behaviour - look out.

Know ourselves

Third, we must know how our own personality will prime us to respond. Suppose:

  1. Someone receives a forwarded post saying that 5G causes Covid.

  2. They see that their friends – selected for their similar outlooks - trust this information enough to share it, and they trust their friends’ judgement more than that of strangers. 

  3. Following the media that appeals to their perspective, they think that this view is mainstream - and are persuaded by what they see as the wisdom of crowds. 

  4. The story may fit with their preferred world view - that technology is frightening, or that the government wants to harm them. 

  5. They may also enjoy feeling more enlightened than others who don’t subscribe to this conspiracy theory.

  6. One click and a hundred new people start looking suspiciously at their local cellphone tower.

Knowing about these universal tendencies, becoming aware of our own biases, and being willing to read or watch content that challenges our views can help protect us against disinformation.

In a speech made in Athens in 2015, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of how fast and easy information and falsehoods can be spread: “…if information can be shared more easily as technology advances, so can misinformation and disinformation,” he said. “If truth can spread more quickly and more widely, then so can error and falsehood.”

If in any doubt, avoid the trap of forwarding lies. In some circumstances, sharing really isn’t caring.