Last month I received a "helpful" email from my mother, who received it from a friend of hers. The friend who forwarded it to her is a health professional with many years of experience, and her husband is a crop scientist. Credible people. When I received it, my first reaction was "huh, that’s useful." But there is more to the story…
You may have received this same message. It was being copy and pasted into Facebook (and probably every other platform in the world) at a prodigious rate. It begins with a story about "Dr Irene Ken" and her niece who works at Johns Hopkins University in Infectious Diseases.
The post/paste/email is quite long, with a series of seemingly helpful tips about how and why you should wash your hands, the biology of the virus, that sort of thing. What could be the harm in that, you might wonder?
The harm is this: this message is a mixture of accurate and inaccurate information, and it is misattributed—there is no "Dr. Irene Ken" or a niece who is an "Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University." Because there is a mixture of accurate, incomplete, and unverifiable information, this is at minimum a case of misinformation. Information that confuses people.
Even more concerning, however, is that it represents a case of disinformation. Disinformation is *designed* to confuse people. As I read the message I am suspicious that it is an example of deliberate false information:
- the vague call to authority,
- the mixture of truths, half-truths, and untruths,
- and the encouragement (at the bottom) to "share with all your friends."
In addition to these three things, there is also the tone and quality of the writing.
This might be harder to see for people who are not native English speakers, but the writing is "off" in the post. For example: "NO BACTERICIDE SERVES" That makes no sense. It is possible to figure out what they mean, but it isn’t proper English. Similarly, "quickly disintegrate its structure with everything said" isn’t a proper English sentence, either.
This use of language reveals something about the crafting of misinformation. The work isn’t exactly the work of great writers and in this case probably not native English speakers. These are people who have to throw out a lot of stuff quickly. So, they cut and paste. And, they are hitting multiple cultures and language groups, so they use automatic translate so that they can cut and paste across languages.
The cut and paste actually works well for these people, because they benefit from inconsistency or inaccuracy or information with internal conflicts. Remember, dissension and debate is a goal.
You might ask yourself, why would anyone bother to craft fake or false information and include real information amongst the junk?
Here is why: when you toss disinformation into a population that is already fearful, you get people into debates about what is and isn’t the truth. When the "source" of that information (Johns Hopkins University) is revealed to be bogus then people mistrust that source…even though JHU had nothing to do with the information in the first place. Remember that JHU’s interactive map is one of the top places for information about the coronavirus.
People who receive the information also will engage in related activities (like this blog post : ) either supporting or criticizing the information. All of that is wasted time. And it sets people against each other (“That idiot!”) and in doing so lowers—even if it is a small amount—trust in society as a whole. Not a good thing.
This is, sadly, a classic case of information warfare. It is beyond my paygrade to identify who might be behind this, but the normal sources for this in today’s world are the superpowers as well as what we might call "antagonistic" governments. Those people benefit from dissension among the population in their enemies. And they don’t take a break because of a pandemic. In fact, this is the best of times for them. Think about it—how likely would you be to forward some dubious collection of hand washing tips on a normal day? Not likely at all. But today, you might. Because you want to be helpful.
We are all tempted to go searching for information and then when we find something cool, we want to share it. It's natural. Don’t do it. The most outrageous things are being shared online, ranging from the source of the virus (who cares at this point?) to the supposed cures (do you think our hospitals wouldn’t be using those cures if they existed?). All that stuff is "noise" in the system and can drown out good information. Even worse, a LOT of it has a payload of malware or disinformation designed to steal your identity and/or confuse and upset you. Stick with official channels and DO NOT become a purveyor of information. That is not your job. We have people who are paid for that, let them do the work.
As digital media professionals we have a high standard of care. We must be ever vigilant. Read critically, look for the clues, check with others. And don’t forward things. If people have questions, refer them to a credible source, and let the health professionals do their work. And we can do our work, making digital media fun again!