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ON MISINFORMATION PART 1

IT STARTED WITH “alternative facts,” as proclaimed by Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to the president. Two days after Trump became president, she used this term to defend his boasting about his inauguration crowd count.

There is continued misinformation with another presidential counselor Rudy Giuliani and his unfounded claims of fraud in the 2020 election. Similar disinformation is evident in alleged Constitutional aspects of mask wearing, social distancing, and other responses to the coronavirus pandemic. “Unfounded,” “unsubstantiated,” and “without factual basis” have become standard qualifiers in many administration pronouncements.

At first thought, I treat all these as lies. And their perpetrators, as liars. However, mendacity calls for research, as already noted here at SimanaitisSays in “Comparative Mendacity 101” and “Got Mendacity?”

I’ve recently learned more about mendacity from a series offered online by ResearchGate, in particular, “Alternative Facts, Misinformation, and Fake News: Markets of Attention, Misinformation, and Manipulation.”

Reality Lost: Markets of Attention, Misinformation, and Manipulation, by Vincent F. Hendricks and Mads Vestergaard, Springer, 2018.

This particular ResearchGate posting is Chapter 4 of Hendricks and Vestergaard’s book Reality Lost: Markets of Attention, Misinformation, and Manipulation. Danish philosopher and logician Vincent Hendricks is founder and Director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Vestergaard is a postdoc at CIBS. As described at the Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe website, CIBS is an interdisciplinary center that examines the mathematical structure and dynamics of “bubble phenomena,” wherein intellectual isolation can be wrought by the Internet. Such bubbles may contain truth or, often, something less than truth. 

Nuances of Mendacity. Hendricks and Vestergaard’s work is illuminating in its discussion of nuances of mendacity: What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation? What’s the framing of information? What about cherry picking? And is there a way to assess the quality of information? Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from these scholars’ study, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Uninformed Versus Misinformed. Hendricks and Vestergaard make a distinction between being uninformed and misinformed: “If you are uninformed about something, you do not necessarily have a belief about what the facts are. You may, like Socrates, at least know you know nothing.” 

This reminds me of “The Dunning-Kruger Effect, Me, and John Cleese” here at SimanaitisSays. 

Hendricks and Vestergaard continue, “If, on the other hand, you are misinformed, you have factually false convictions that you believe to be true.” 

And Then There’s Disinformation. Hendricks and Vestergaard note that misinformation may arise unintentionally “by passing on information that is believed to be true but which turns out to be false. If, on the other hand, the misinformation is intended (as hard as that may be to assess or prove), this is disinformation.

The researchers offer a historical example: “Had the Bush administration itself believed in 2003 that Saddam Hussein commanded functioning weapons of mass destruction ready to be fired, the argument for going to war was a case of misinformation to the public. If, however, the administration did know that Hussein had no such things and the misleading was thus intended, it would qualify as a case of disinformation.”

Covid-19 Information. I offer a more recent example: At the pandemic’s onset, we were all uninformed about means of confronting it. Then specialists (included Dr. Albert Fauci and the World Health Organization) initially offered misinformation about mask use. As evolving evidence justified mask efficacy, this misinformation was corrected. 

By contrast, those today resisting masks and social distancing have been dissuaded by disinformation, largely promulgated by Trump’s posturing.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue Hendricks and Vestergaard’s analyses of framing, cherry picking, belief echoes, and other means of misinforming. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020    

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