We've failed to prevent the spread of disinformation, and it's corroding society

A chain of recent events that cycled from fact to fiction encapsulated a worrying problem with our political culture. 

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The end game of our strikingly dishonest election threw up a chain of events on Monday that encapsulate how society's engagement with politics is misfiring. We'll be grappling with this reality long after the polls have closed. 

The story involves a series of whiplash-inducing turns. It began with a photo of a four-year-old with suspected pneumonia sleeping on the floor of a hospital in Leeds; it took off with an interview with Boris Johnson pocketing the phone of a journalist to avoid viewing the image of the child.

Footage of that moment went viral, and in a bid to take control of the narrative, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was dispatched to Leeds General Infirmary. There he was confronted by a handful of protesters.

Someone appears to have told “senior Tories” that a protester had punched Hancock’s aide, who in turn briefed senior political journalists including Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, who in turn immediately tweeted the information without verifying that there had, in fact, been any punching.

Shortly afterwards a video emerged showing that the aide had walked into a protesters arm; no punching had taken place. Chastised reporters deleted their tweets and posted clarifications.

The story didn't end there. Overnight, a false claim began circulating that the original photo from the hospital had been staged. This was amplified and augmented by public figures such as the Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson and ex-cricketer Kevin Pietersen.

On Facebook, the social media account of a medical secretary alleged the photo was staged, according to information provided by a friend who worked at the hospital. Some began suggesting that posts discrediting the image were the work of a bot army, perhaps paid for by the Conservatives, or indeed Russian trolls set on influencing the election.

In reality, as disinformation experts First Draft found, very few tweets used exactly the same language in the way a true army of automated accounts would. And while much Facebook data is hidden, there's little evidence that bots were behind its spread there either. As the journalist James Ball has previously put it, it can often be difficult to tell the difference between a bot and a very political pensioner. 

By mid-morning the owner of the Facebook account where the allegation had first surfaced told the press: “I was hacked. I am not a nurse and I certainly don’t know anyone in Leeds.” By lunchtime, Pearson had deleted her tweets (albeit not her retweets promoting the same theory).

The episode cycled surreally through fact, viral video, false story, correction, conspiracy theory and debunk in the space of little more than 24 hours.

What, if anything, can we learn from this? The first is a lesson specifically for the media, in particular high-profile political journalists such as Kuenssberg and Peston, who have extensive social media followings. We know politicians are increasingly prepared to lie. Quoting anonymous sources, or indeed named ones, without independently verifying facts or at least caveating and contextualising what is being reported needs to stop. That will require renouncing the desperate desire to be first at all costs, and the dopamine rush of online engagement that comes with it.

The second lesson is for everyone. Examine all stories. Be sceptical of their sources, but don’t discount something simply because of where it came from. Don’t push a narrative because it fits your worldview and don’t share something as soon as you see it just because the best way to soothe your outrage is with the balm of likes and retweets.

The third lesson is that the previous two lessons are unlikely to be learned, and even if they are, may not be enough. We’ve long known how this problem manifests. Something is broken in how we talk to each other, how we discuss what is and isn’t happening, and what we should do about it. We don't have a solution and keep running through the same behaviours that we know exacerbate the problem. 

We have failed, spectacularly, to arrive at a solution to the spread of disinformation. It's corroding the foundations of society and our ability to live together at an alarming speed. 

Jasper Jackson is a freelance journalist and media columnist for the New Statesman.

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