Disinformation delivers the simple explanations that people long for, it distorts the political debate and, in some cases, it incites fatal violence. It can only be overcome by argumentation, education and active citizenship.
Disinformation is omnipresent and very dangerous. Politicians, journalists, scientists and citizens are today being targeted by deliberate disinformation campaigns. Often, there is a grain of truth to the misleading allegations that initially makes them seem plausible. For example, they might include a statistic that really does exist but is taken entirely out of context, thereby depriving it of its informative value and turning it into disinformation. Many of the allegations are pure and simple lies. Or they are statements that have been deliberately taken apart and reconstructed to give them an entirely opposite and defamatory meaning. Many politicians have experienced the effects of disinformation including, quite recently, German FDP party chairman Christian Lindner. A statement he made during a speech in the Bundestag about the housing market was quoted on Twitter and Facebook in such a truncated version that it gave the impression Lindler had said something entirely ridiculous about having been particularly hard hit by Berlin’s housing shortage. He’d actually said the opposite.
Images can also anchor disinformation in the mind of the public. For example, photos were posted on Twitter and Facebook supposedly showing acts of violence in Germany, but they were actually images of an attack that took place in Egypt. Disinformation accompanying, influencing and distorting key political decisions was evident during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, in the UK’s Brexit referendum, as well as in the Catalonian, Scottish and Dutch referendums, in connection with the wars in Syria and the Ukraine and in measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Disinformation about refugees has also been circulating in Germany since 2015; and disinformation played a key role in fueling the right-wing riots in Chemnitz.
The deliberate dissemination of disinformation and rumors in the social media has become an everyday occurrence. The machinery was set in motion after the attack in Hanau and the incident of the driver who ran amok in Volkmarsen. A misinforming item was posted on a foreign website – without quoting sources – suggesting that an Islamic terrorist had driven his car into the carnival procession. Hundreds of users picked up on it. The people who not only believe but also proactively spread entirely unsubstantiated allegations think they are being systematically lied to by the police and media.
Disinformation tends to build momentum, forming a reference system and enticing people into a parallel world in which enlightenment fades and reason falls by the wayside. The people who are receptive to biased content don’t respond to credibility, but to its propagandist value for their own perception of reality. Disinformation on its own does not have the same effect as disinformation as part of an overall narrative. And there is an existential interrelationship between the two. The overall narrative is what gives disinformation its significance, whereas the disinformation appears to be part of the overall narrative. In this combination, disinformation can develop its full destructive force.
Demand for disinformation on the opinion market is driven by people who long for simple explanations and recoil from the confusion that is associated with the modern age of freedom of speech and pluralism. It’s easy to lose your way in the never-ending flood of information generated in the complex free world where people have to form their own opinions on the basis of countless other opinions. In the modern information society we have access to endless information and scientific research, yet much of it is complex, obscure and sometimes contradictory. The people who propagate disinformation play to our desire for order by simplifying highly complex social interrelationships to form conspiracy theories and point fingers at people.
Disinformation follows the scapegoat principle. Allegedly, politicians and the media are being controlled by secret puppeteers who are forcing hundreds of thousands of people to move from country to country like dolls and even planning a ‘population exchange’. These stories, as absurd as they obviously are, give fanatics their dangerous ideological ammunition, and encourage armed terrorist attacks – such as the one that recently took place in Halle, where a man attacked a synagogue because he had the crazy notion that the Jews are ‘to blame’ for feminism and mass immigration. Disinformation poses a real danger to human life. We cannot simply ignore it.
Disinformation is an alarm bell for our liberal and democratic society, which is based on education and reason. However, the best antidote to disinformation is not to ban it, but to counter it with effective arguments, more education and independent media – as well as encouraging citizens to get involved. Freedom and pluralism should not be seen as a burden. We have to consciously embrace it and willing to assume responsibility for it. It’s up to us.