The nature and nurture of disinformation

First published on the ICT4Peace Foundation website.

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For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard in branches.
— Poem in the Matukituki Valley, James K. Baxter

“In the woods we return to reason and faith.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aotearoa New Zealand’s inaugural hui on countering terrorism and violent extremism, He Whenua Taurikura, meaning a country at peace, was held mid-June in Christchurch. A policy brief written for and a presentation made at the hui articulated a radical departure from mainstream thinking on how best to address disinformation. Knowingly spreading false or misleading information is a significant challenge that will only grow in complexity, including in Aotearoa. Populists and their propaganda have utilised a corrosive choral of partial, partisan content for decades. More recently, social media is an accelerant to infamy, potentially expanding the reach of harmful content not just across county or country, but continents. Extremely complicated and, by its very nature, constantly changing, disinformation’s entrenchment in Aotearoa New Zealand demands policies that are fit for purpose, responsive, sensitive to local context and grounded in her culture.

Departing from disinformation defined as predominantly an online or social media phenomenon sought to focus on how to address it meaningfully, inspired by two key factors. Firstly, research, spanning two decades, studying the seed, spread, and settling of harmful content in divided societies. Secondly, and new to existing approaches, Aotearoa New Zealand’s salubrious natural environment as the canvass for an ecological perspective to address the root causes of disinformation.

Debate around proposed revisions to laws governing hate speech in Aotearoa New Zealand reaffirm the need to step back and reflect on whether proposed solutions adequately embrace the complexity of problems facing democracy, and how these interconnected challenges will change. Supported by research looking at the criminalisation of misinformation elsewhere in the world, there is scant evidence to support the belief that punitive measures help meaningfully stem the flow of harmful content, or disincentivise the production of disinformation. Furthermore, mirroring what virology calls the gain of function, existing pathways for disinformation are constantly mutating, deflecting oversight and meaningful, timely responses by social media companies, regulators, governments or academics. Accordingly, predominantly bureaucratic or technocratic approaches risk establishing regulatory or legislative frameworks that inadequately address issues they seek to address. Governments are often motivated by the need to do something, and be seen to be doing something, around pressing socio-political problems constituents demand responses to. However, disinformation operates on a different timescale. While headline-grabbing moments like the horrific violence on 6 January in Capitol Hill focus attention on online disinformation’s increasing contribution to offline violence, harm can be fomented and fester over a much more extended period through toxic content that, for years, escapes scrutiny. This is mainly because disinformation’s highly motivated, chief producers today are far removed from ignorant, basement-inhabiting stereotypes and demonstrate significant skill, strategy, and sophistication in the production of harmful content. Their principal motivation is to radically change societal attitudes, practices, and perceptions over time, often to become more exclusive, partial, monotone, and insular. Accordingly, while disinformation may be increasingly digital in form, its function is often to foment and fan unrest, offline.

At He Whenua Taurikura, I used the analogy of how the Department of Conservation would go about caring for and protecting Aotearoa New Zealand’s natural environment as a radically new frame to address disinformation. Instead of seeing regulation and codified laws as the most effective way to stop disinformation’s seed and spread, I flagged how the management of forests and parks focussed on ecological balance and inter-dependencies. In nature’s rich, diverse ecologies, the quality of groundwater, soil and underbrush directly influence the health of a forest or park. What grows or does not is in a symbiotic relationship with the larger environment. Pruning branches, cutting trees or new saplings will not lead to a healthier ecology if groundwater is contaminated, or what’s planted is incompatible with native wildlife. The same applies to laws, regulations and policies around content inciting hate, where what’s proposed and implemented needs to be fit for purpose, country, context, community and culture. A whole of society approach to combat disinformation – what the Royal Commission Report on Christchurch terms ‘social cohesion’ – requires us to address, amongst other issues, the enduring violence of post-colonial history, unmet Te Tiriti obligations, and acknowledge other domestic problems, like racism. While disinformation may never be eliminated, social and political responses to content inciting hate and harm can and should be cultivated in such a way as to reject calls for or expressions of violence.

To this end, a slide featuring the movement of a flock of birds, called murmuration, captured the audience’s imagination at the hui. The study of disinformation amongst large groups, I noted, was very similar to the way shoals of fish or flocks of birds responded to their environment, including by signalling the presence of predators only or first detected by a few at the edges. Groups tend to gravitate towards, cluster around or reject things in ways that, studied at scale, can help create more robust defences against predatory, violent or hateful actors. Strengthening belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy as a whole of society approach to minimising disinformation’s harms build on the Royal Commission Report’s recommendations. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression Irene Khan makes a similar point in a recent report, noting that,

“Disinformation is not the cause but the consequence of societal crises and the breakdown of public trust in institutions. Strategies to address disinformation are unlikely to succeed without more attention being paid to these underlying factors.”

Going beyond purely technocratic or predominantly algorithmic approaches, I propose drawing from conservation, behavioural sciences, biology and ecological studies to address disinformation’s nature and nurture. A more holistic and grounded approach also draw from from Aotearoa New Zealand’s unique bi-cultural values, that Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta recently highlighted in her speech at the 55th Otago Foreign Policy School, including manākitanga (a common humanity) and whanaungatanga (connectedness).

The lines from Baxter quoted at the start highlight nature’s destructive potential, like disinformation’s harmful patina on society, around which there are already abundant warnings. On the other hand, Emerson enjoins us to return to nature in order to learn how best to address challenges like disinformation, for which there is, and never will be, simple solutions.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Special Advisor at the ICT4Peace Foundation and PhD candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS), University of Otago.

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