“Lies not only dominated the campaigns around the EU referendum in Britain and the [2016] presidential elections in the US, but—more disturbingly—the usual remedy against falsehoods, providing evidence for the truth, had turned useless. Evidence didn’t matter anymore. The liars shrugged and repeated the lie. When evidence doesn’t matter, politicians become unaccountable. For democracies, this is a dangerous development.”[1]

Former US President Barrack Obama also mentioned this in his speeches[2] in 2018, stating that human history is full of politicians who “fudged” data or overpromised, but everyone would usually be ashamed if they got caught. The difference now, he expressed, is that leaders shamelessly, blatantly lie and double down on those lies when they get called out.

(Un)informed Choice

The difference between “old-school” politicians and the new ones can thus be found in the term “post-truth” – facts don’t matter anymore, and people believe what they feel is true. This implies that our people can never do anything wrong, while their people can never do anything right, and this view has nothing to do with democracy.

Among the core criteria for a country to be a democracy is to have the people make an informed choice about their representatives. Elections not only have to be free and fair, but people should be able to know what and whom they are voting for.

While dictatorships like cold war communist countries or present-day China and North Korea try to block information from reaching citizens, many other authoritarian leaders have turned to weaponizing media by filling the information space with falsehoods, hate speech, trolling, and other forms of disruptive communication.

Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s (former) henchmen, is famous for designating the mainstream media as the real enemy, and stating they can defeat it by “flooding the zone with shit”[3].

The Russian Internet Research Agency, founded by the now deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin, is pretty well known for its efforts to use disinformation to interfere in the US elections.[4]

Rodrigo Duterte, former President of the Philippines, has used an army of trolls and bots not only to help himself win his position, but subsequently to “silence people into submission”. An exposé by the journalists at Rappler[5] shows that not only was social media an important factor in electing Duterte, but that his online army had a long-term impact on shifting public opinion, that turned more tolerant of extrajudicial killings, especially when drug dealers are involved.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the new President of the Philippines uses the same tricks. He won on a campaign that “whitewashed his father’s brutally corrupt dictatorship, falsifying not only Philippine history but also his own education credentials” and is now poised to continue the rewriting of history.[6]

The same method has been employed in Saudi Arabia, with hundreds of people working for a troll farm in Riyadh to silence dissenters[7] such as Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist that was in the end assassinated, most likely at the order of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. More recently, a Saudi citizen has been sentenced to death for criticizing the leadership on X (formerly Twitter), reigniting concerns of complacency from the social media network[8].

The Tyranny of The Majority

Having an information space that is riddled with lies, bots, and trolls not only attacks the “informed choice” principle of democracies but undermines a second principle – the protection of minorities.

Constitutions of democratic countries ensure human rights protections, including various forms of protecting minorities. This is the main difference between a (modern) democracy and the “tyranny of the majority”, that is sometimes expressed as “two wolves and a sheep, voting on what’s for dinner”.

It is very common for disinformation to target minority groups in order to promote financial or political interests, since finding wedge issues and blaming people who are “different” is a time-tested method for populists and authoritarians.

Immigrants are constantly blamed in the US for bringing drugs and crime, even though this has been disproven[9]. Right-wing US politicians and pundits have been pushing the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory[10], that claims elites want to replace the white majority with nonwhites, who are easier to control.

Misinformation led to increased harassment of Asian-Americans after COVID spread. In Greece, attacks on immigrants have increased, as false narratives are blaming them for starting fires. The fear of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” drove a 21-year-old man more than 650 miles from his home to kill Mexicans, in August 2019[11].

LGBTQ+ persons are constantly vilified and made part of various conspiracy theories revolving around elites that want to control the world. The former Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, used this in his 2018 campaign, condemning a “gay kit” that he claimed his rival, Fernando Haddad, was planning to use to promote homosexual practices among children[12].

The Vocal Minority

On the other side, vocal minority can end up dominating the information space by sheer “loudness”, sometimes completed with intimidation tactics. Such situations are also damaging for democracy, as they can lead to blocking any civic or political action, and limit participation in the public sphere to people who are willing and able to resist threats and harassment.

The January 6th incident is one popular example where a minority has literally tried to overturn the results of an election by threats of violence.

Another example is the actions of “Moms for Liberty” (MFL), an organization founded in 2020, after Tina Descovich, an anti-COVID activist with ties to the Republican party was defeated in a race for a school board in Florida. MFL started opposing COVID prevention measures in 2021 but quickly moved to harassing schoolboard members and school employees.

Members “began calling school board members «paedophiles» and threatening them, saying, «We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you! »”[13]

Jennifer Jenkins, who had defeated Descovich in the elections, has been specifically targeted. Someone followed her into a store and told her underage daughter “your mother hurts little children”. People have called her personal phone to hurl various insults. Some bushes in her yard had been destroyed, and someone wrote “FU” with weed killer on her lawn.

A couple of school employees and school board members chose to resign instead of having to face rampant harassment and threats of violence.

In other examples, being loud and organizing manifestations can stop public measures of reforms from being implemented, for fear of scandal or harassment. For example, Romania has important issues with vaccination rates, including for the Immunization Schedule recommended for children. Discussions of amending the law so that parents would face penalties if they don’t vaccinate their children has been blocked in 2018, because of the scandal raised by a small group of antivaccination activists.

More recently, a National Vaccination Strategy has been proposed, that was immediately attacked for attempting to impose mandatory vaccination, even though it had no such provisions. Authorities reacted by stating there is no plan to make vaccination mandatory in the near future, thus the public debate has been shut down even though there are many developed countries that do have some mandated vaccinations, including Belgium[14], the Czech Republic[15], and France[16].

Wasting time and resources

Finally, misinformation also implies wasting time and resources and can make it harder for activists and NGOs to do their work. Firstly, debunking false narratives is more difficult than producing them. Second, misinformation distracts the public’s attention from relevant issues, and sometimes even completely misrepresents issues, making interventions more difficult.

The QAnon derived movement “#savethechildren”[17], pretends to be aimed at raising awareness of the issue and pressuring authorities to counter trafficking rings, that are allegedly covered-up or even supported by public figures and politicians. But the movement projects a flawed understanding of trafficking, that “evokes the misleading image of children being kidnapped by strangers and then transported across state lines or international borders to be sold for sex”[18] when in reality “most real cases of sex trafficking of minors involve teenagers who are pushed to commercial sex work due to extreme poverty, abuse, or other devastating circumstances”[19].

Beside constructing a pipeline towards QAnon and other conspiracy theories, the movement blurred the lines between real and fictional anti-trafficking activities, targeting movies (such as Cuties) or advertising for “grooming”, while ignoring real sexual abuse going on, for instance, in churches. The false narratives on the topic also prompted right-wing, conspiracy-minded politicians such as Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Greene to use it in their attacks on media and opponents.

Moreover, a 2022 study[20] argues that disinformation about children trafficking “diverts resources and effort from supporting victims and survivors”. It focuses attention on sensationalist cases while overlooking the broader phenomenon and can even lead to a decrease in reports by victims, because of “invalidating the narratives of people with lived experience and drowning out the voices of survivor-advocates”.

The Greatest Challenge of Our Lives

I frequently say that information disorder – misinformation, disinformation, propaganda etc. – is the greatest challenge of our time. Many friends and coworkers consider this to be a hyperbole, an exaggeration; after all, I am very engaged in countering disinformation, so one might say that, for me, it comes with the territory.

It is not an exaggeration, and it is not a hyperbole. Democracy does not only die “in darkness”, but can, and will, be drowned in the sea of lies some are filling by the hose. It’s time we took it more seriously.

Start acting now! Enroll to our self-paced course on Countering Disinformation today!

[1] Henkel, I. 2021. Destructive storytelling: Disinformation and the Eurosceptic myth that shaped Brexit. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-69503-3.

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/11/03/barack-obama-blatant-lies-georgia-rally-sot-vpx.cnn https://news.yahoo.com/obama-deplores-leaders-lie-utter-loss-shame-161701228.html

[3] https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/16/media/steve-bannon-reliable-sources/index.html

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/2023/02/14/europe/russia-yevgeny-prigozhin-internet-research-agency-intl/index.html

[5] https://www.rappler.com/nation/148007-propaganda-war-weaponizing-internet/

[6] https://www.nationthailand.com/blogs/perspective/40015561

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twitter.html

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/04/twitter-saudi-arabia-human-rights-abuses

[9] https://academic.oup.com/oep/article-abstract/73/1/200/5572162, https://www.npr.org/2022/08/18/1118271910/many-americans-falsely-think-migrants-are-bringing-most-of-the-fentanyl-entering

[10] https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-twisted-logic-behind-the-rights-great-replacement-arguments/

[11] https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/anti-immigrant-rhetoric-spiked-in-this-election-heres-why-its-dangerous/

[12] https://www.cairn-int.info/journal-revue-internationale-de-philosophie-2022-1-page-87.htm

[13] https://www.mediamatters.org/critical-race-theory/unmasking-moms-liberty

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2244783/

[15] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56669397

[16] https://hal.science/hal-01789212/document

[17] https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-donald-trump-child-trafficking-illinois-morris-aab978bb7e9b89cd2cea151ca13421a0

[18] https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/savethechildren-how-fringe-conspiracy-theory-fueled-massive-child-abuse-panic

[19] idem

[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9531675/

Background illustration Adobe stock author: Seventyfour