“People are dying because of misinformation.”
This potent comment, among other things, was made by Former President of the United States of America Barack Obama in a wide-ranging presentation on the threat of false information online in a recent address at Stanford University.
Obama, in his keynote address, also noted that he did not realise during his presidency “just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself”.
Susceptibility to lies is not a new phenomenon. The power of lies is as old as time itself. Decades ago, Sir Winston Churchill, former prime minister of Britain, famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.”
Lies have surmounted social, economic, and political boundaries since time immemorial. What is new today is that lies are spread at unprecedented speeds via the Internet-related media. Some today try to deodorise and sanitise lies with terms like misinformation and disinformation.
This is wrong, and I believe very dangerous.
Obama is right, “People are dying because of misinformation.”
Just over a million people have succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States. In what is termed a First World country, with a generally good system of schooling, thousands have gone to an early grave because, among other things, they swallowed lies about COVID-19 vaccines.
At the time of writing, credible media, like the Washington Post and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), had reported that, globally, just over 6.3 million people had died from COVID-19. Articles in scholarly publications, like the Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, and Journal of Adolescent Health posit that thousands of these deaths could have been prevented if people had simply observed the protocols of mask-wearing, increased public and private hygiene practices, and vaccination. Many still will not take heed. They prefer to embrace lies, like a mother embraces a newborn. This, even in the midst of the fifth wave of novel coronavirus infections in many countries. Lies are a stranglehold, and this overwhelming grip of lies is suffocating millions.
MORE THAN JUST GULLIBILITY
Why would any sane person accept the advice of someone who got their medical credentials on social media? Why do so many spend so much time concocting vicious lies which often result in massive loss of life and limb? And why do so many people fall prey to lies so easily?
Some scholars have argued that lies have an addictive quality about them. They say lies have a similar effect on the brain as cocaine and/or similar drugs. Other scholars argue that liars manipulate our innate feelings of belonging, what they refer to as the human social group effect. Those who trade in lies know this and more.
Merchants of lies also know that people in general are superstitious. Superstitions are a major part of our cultural make-up and there are some among us who are calculatingly abusing our varied and historical disposition to certain superstitious beliefs. This is sickening! At best, the concoctions of fake news purveyors have only a smidgen of verifiable evidence. That is the bait. It is a big red flag, but many do not see it. Among other things, these cruel actors market ignorance as a strength.
WHAT IN DI WORL?
In recent days, those who trade in snake oil and moonshine have been working overtime.
They have repackaged their lies, in some instances, but have also released new fabrications about COVID-19 vaccines. This is no accident. These falsifiers have designed a concoction and each ingredient in their rotten brew is carefully added at specific times to achieve the maximum effect.
All well-thinking Jamaicans should embrace and help to promote mask-wearing, increased personal and public hygiene, and vaccination to help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. We should shun fanatics who preach that protocols to protect against infections are part and parcel of a grand plot to usher in global mind control, which has been designed by those who are orchestrating what they call a new world order.
The Jamaicans who have died from COVID-19, now over 3,000, were not aliens from space. They were the brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters of our fellow citizens. The social, emotional, and financial loss that accompanies death is never easy to accept and recover from.
Those who have cranked up multiple levels of deception about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines, I am sure, will not lift even so much as a finger to help the families of those who die as a consequence of their ignorance.
The spreaders of fake news are concerned only with furthering their sinister agendas, aided by new technologies.
Obama in his far-reaching address at Stanford recently, chastised big technology companies for the use of manipulative algorithms.
He noted that, “For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the Internet… No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations.”
The former president did not, however, finger technology as the cause of today’s numerous social ills. He noted that, “Racism, sexism, and misogyny, all predate the Internet, but technology has helped amplify them.” I agree.
Some consistently argue that technology is addictive. I wonder at that. Many years ago, columnist and lawyer Morris Cargill (now deceased) argued that people were “addictable”, not that drugs, for example, were addictive. Might the same be said in relation to manipulative algorithms?
THREAT TO DEMOCRACY
I believe the most critical point Obama raised in the mentioned presentation was the threat that misinformation posed for the longevity of democracy.
“Do we allow our democracy to wither, or do we make it better?” Disinformation online, including deepfake technology, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Obama noted, posed a threat to democracy.
Those who saw the desecration that was presided over by Donald J Trump during his time in the office of the president of the United States of America doubtless understand that disinformation poses a real danger to the health of democracy.
Globally, several election outcomes have come under the microscope because of overwhelming evidence that disinformation was used to determine the outcomes.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the former dictator and president of the Philippines, won the recent national election in that country. Many credible public figures at different levels of that society assert that the purveyors of disinformation and misinformation were the real winners in that election.
Some public commentators in the Philippines claim social media platforms were extensively used to spread a hugely sanitised and deodorised account of Ferdinand Marcos, his family, and the senior Marcos’s time as president.
I believe disinformation has now become a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of those whose objective, among other things, is the usurpation of democratic institutions.
We in Jamaica had better take sleep and mark death.
It did not escape my notice that during the recent strikes by some local union members here at home, regarding the proposed compensation reclassification for the public sector, some among us dishonestly used the cause of the workers as an opportunity for a dress rehearsal of how they intend to use disinformation in certain future events.
I do not believe disinformation is best countered by disinformation.
I believe that truth is still the best antidote for misinformation and disinformation.
The truth will always win if we release it in a timely manner.
The theft of infrastructure is a clear and present danger to the growth and development of this country.
Those who might think this statement is an exaggeration need to consider this excerpt from a presentation which was made in the House of Representatives last Wednesday by Desmond McKenzie, the minister of local government and rural development.
Among other things, McKenzie said, “We have the breakdown of where the thefts have occurred, from parish to division. Unscrupulous people are preying on the network of JPS [Jamaica Public Service Company] all over the country.
“In the last financial year, 723 street lights were stolen, and JPS spent US$303,660 or over $47 million to replace them.
“Thirty-three street lights, along with 3,200 metres of service wire, were stolen on three separate occasions and had to be replaced at a cost of nearly US$50,000 at the Chesterfield main road in St Andrew.
“While it is clear that these criminal acts require a police response, it is not possible for the constabulary to be on every road to address this issue.
“The street lights are being stolen on the main roads and within urban and rural communities. I call on residents everywhere to be vigilant and help prevent the highways and byways from being plunged into darkness.”
This is a frightening state of affairs. We have some among us who are intent on turning this country into that which even they cannot recognise. If we all sit by and do nothing, then we are no better than the miscreants who are stealing these street lights.
“But I don’t see the connection with me and my family,” some might bellow.
To those individuals I say this: Take a quick look at your electricity bill.
And just in case you don’t see the obvious, then please consider this: ‘JPS applies for rate hike’. (Jamaica Observer, June 22, 2021)
This type of headline has become a sort of recurring decimal in the last 15 years.
Those who think I am joking can do a quick Google search. As a matter of fact, last Tuesday, The Gleaner had this banner headline: ‘JPS applies for rate hike.’ All things are connected.
SERIOUS SOCIETAL SICKNESS
The theft of the country’s infrastructure is spreading like a very virulent plague, and it is negatively affecting thousands of Jamaicans, and will eventually impact every single citizen of this country. Those who look the other way when they see criminals stealing the copper wires from the works of the telecommunications companies are no better than the thieves, in my humble view. And those who buy the fuel, which they know was stolen from the cell sites of telecommunication companies, are equally malignant as the thieves who did the lifting.
Those who watch while some malefactors cut away parts of bridges to sell as scrap iron are helping to dig their own graves.
Some wonder why Jamaica has not reached further than we are. It is not difficult to understand one of the primary reasons.
We are our own worst enemy.
While some are going the extra mile to raise the standing of this country, there are others who are simultaneously ripping apart what is being built.
The latter is often among those who shout the loudest that they need better roads, better hospitals, better schools, better telecommunications service, better street lights, and better everything. And they want it now!
We are going to have to decide, as a country, whether we are going to put a premium on the rule of law or simply continue to embrace the attitude that: “Ah suh the ting set.”
If we continue to give tighter embrace to the latter, we will have no one to blame for our continual low levels of economic achievement, social decay, infrastructural setbacks, and all the numerous other problems that spring from a failure to “handle our business”, as the Americans put it.
A country that does not handle its business, ultimately, is reduced to what a famous Caribbean man once called “mendicants holding flags”.
In 2007, then leader of the Jamaica Labour Party Bruce Golding said, among other things, at his party’s conference: “We believe we are too rich to be so poor, too gifted to to be so restricted, too blessed to be stressed, and too anointed to be so disappointed.”
As a country, I don’t believe we recognise our own total potential, and how we are wasting it.
That is the great sadness.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.