The disinformation about the disinformation

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
UK policy
Digital Planet logo

Digital Planet, the BBC World Service’s podcast about global technology and the internet, is a wonderful thing. It’s a weekly reminder that the world is a lot more than the global north, and a lot more than a handful of American companies. It’s also a stream of positive inspiration about the best of technology and what it can do: rays of sunshine in a world that seems awfully dark. Put it in your podcast app of choice.

Here’s an example, from a recent episode, about how the global perspective shared on the show can help you think about things much closer to home.

In the episode, we learned that Brazilians have a specific term for older people who spread disinformation on social media. It seems to translate to “zap uncles” and “zap aunties”, a portmanteau of WhatsApp + uncles or aunties. And the show implied that those who use the term are making a healthy value judgement about the “zap uncle” in question, as well as the integrity of the information they are spreading.

Because they have this term, as cheeky as it is, Brazilian researchers are able to study the issue as an issue.

In other words, they acknowledge the issue.

It got me thinking – as I’ve done before, to slightly bizarre viral results – about whether social taboos in other countries, including ours, are blocking that very necessary line of rational inquiry.

It certainly got the presenters thinking as well; in the podcast outro, they noted how discussions about disinformation are always about nefarious outside forces which are manipulating younger people; to think of it the other way around is just not a thing which is acceptable, or even thinkable.

Tell that to the janitors of Brasília.

It seems to me that if we’re going to even begin to crack the nut of disinformation on social media, we’re going to need to take a holistic approach. That means looking at everything from competition law to media literacy to adtech surveillance to press regulation. And that means taking a cold hard look at everyone who spreads disinformation, whether they’re a bot or whether they are your otherwise loving zap auntie.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it, because

  • how are we going to crack that nut when the zap aunties and zap uncles, in our own societies, are regarded with fawning deference?
  • How do we even begin to plan to teach media literacy to a cohort whom it is forbidden to challenge or correct, no matter how wrong they are?
  • How do we hold the spreaders of disinformation to account in societies, such as ours, where the ruling party’s political survival depends on portraying the older generations as always victims, never perpetrators?
  • How do we enact meaningful social media regulation when the starting point is always paternalistic “protection” over those who are too young to vote, but whose lives will ultimately be shaped by the disinformation their gran and granddad are spreading?
  • And how do we even begin to look at the issue of disinformation honestly and clearly, when the zap aunties and uncles of our own society are always excused through reduction?

After all, if yer da is sharing a firehose of racist conspiracy bile, well, he’s just getting on in years, isn’t he.

Isn’t he?

Rather than break a societal taboo, or tackle the problem, we reduce the older people who are guilty. We position them as having no agency over their devices (they’re too complicated) or their choices (they got confused), and decide that they are either victims of manipulation or lack the media literacy to understand {insert generic rant about Silicon Valley} or are just getting a bit doo-lally.

The truth is that the majority of older people who spread disinformation on social media not only know full well what they are doing, but are also acting from their deepest beliefs and convictions.

And a quick look at the front pages of any of the print newspapers which provide the older generation with their main sources of news – the sources which they act on when using social media – will tell you all you need to know about that.

The older generation are not victims of disinformation: they are perpetrators of it.

But we can’t talk about that because we can’t talk about that.

So we approach the politics, and the policy, of tackling disinformation on social media, not from the starting point of a searingly open holistic inquiry, as the Brazilians have done; but from the starting point of seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil about half of the damn problem.

We create disinformation about the disinformation.

So how’s that working out for you, then?

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.