Telling occasional fibs is what we animals do. Even my dog is capable of a swifty if it means another biscuit.
But there are limits and we see downright lying creeping ever more into the utterances of politicians, officials and corporate leaders, to say nothing of all the Josie-fibbing-queens on Instagram.
We can tell it’s a massive problem because we now live in a world where governments – at least those that are democratically elected – are beside themselves over rampant disinformation and misinformation.
If you need convincing about this issue, just think of how difficult it is for those concerned about climate upheaval to get any political traction when denial is a stubborn reality in all areas of society.
Think, too, of Donald Trump, elected president in the US with assistance from an electoral system that didn’t even require him to win the most votes, and with a tail-wind of misinformation courtesy of the Russian government.
Closer to home, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques looked closely at the role disinformation and misinformation played. The report concluded “a collective failure” and “a population lacking social cohesion and with a fear of speaking out”. It also noted that the attacker was, in part, radicalised on the internet and used social media to broadcast his deed, in real-time, to an uncontrolled audience of millions.
Typically, when we think of this stuff, we see rouge actors on the internet or misinformation factories in foreign countries. But the emerging pattern is an increasing number of people with some kind of grievance who have come to completely mistrust governments, officials, police and mainstream media.
For them, snake oil politicians, wild west social media and conspiracy videos on Youtube are a haven.
Naturally, governments and officials will look at these areas in an attempt to address the problem. But, given the loss of trust in government, officials and mainstream media, it begs a question about the role of governments, officials and mainstream media in their own demise.
In fact, I would take this even further. Our government’s response would do well to focus closer to home, with their first attention on the reliability, accessibility and timeliness of essential official information, right here. That is certainly doable and, with some imagination, a thing that can be addressed relatively quickly and cheaply. All the other stuff on social media and in a Kremlin-funded warehouse in Siberia is global, massive and tough to counter.
If our government and officials believe they are already doing their best or that it’s not really an issue to address, let me paint three examples where official information fostered mistrust.
No 1: Many communities affected by Cyclone Gabrielle reported poor official communications that could have provided early warnings, or follow-up information that could have helped in the recovery.
No 2: In March 2020 New Zealand was hit with Covid-19 and the government scrambled to a lockdown. There was no ready-to-go or purpose-built facility to provide reliable information to the public, so considerable money and effort was expended on building the Covid19 website. It was well conceived and run but, inevitably, thousands of other organisations, many spread throughout the country, asked for tailored information to be emailed for placement in their own websites. That makes sense given, for example, that a Kāpiti Chamber of Commerce website should have content that’s relevant to the district and their membership.
In short order, this Covid information quickly fell out-of-date and the Ministry of Health struggled to keep it all current and under control, which resulted in mistrust and a void often filled by conspiracy theorists.
No 3: The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) recently made $680,000 available, as a contestable fund, to organisations that had ideas and capabilities to address disinformation and misinformation.
This was advertised through a proxy NGO organisation. At this point, I declare my interest, because my organisation put in an expression of interest for the fund, but we were promptly told the public response was so large that the fund was no longer receiving expressions of interest.
Applicants might well have put in considerable time and effort before making an approach, on the clear understanding that the fund was live and available. In this case, the official information failed to state that first-in-first-served would be the overriding criterium, rather than merit.
The irony is that the NGO was promoting a contestable fund, with public money, to address the very issues they were themselves malpractising – disinformation and misinformation. Expressions of interest were being rejected ahead of any deadline, not because of a lack of merit, but merely because others had beaten them to the punch.
Through my own experience and listening to the stories of those dealing with officials, people often feel a sense of injustice and power imbalance, and poor communications and misinformation reinforces that.
Is it any wonder citizens don’t trust official information and that they turn to snake oil as the alternative.
You can contact Fraser here.
Fraser Carson is the founding partner of Wellington-based Flightdec.com. Flightdec’s kaupapa is to challenge the status quo of the internet to give access to more reliable and valuable citizen generated content, and to improve connectivity and collaboration.