David Leask: There is reason to be optimistic about the war on disinformation

He died, at 61, from his own lies. Mauro Buratti, an Italian anti-vaxxer, lost his fight with Covid over the holidays.

The entrenched conspiracy theorist had been hospitalised after boasting that he was shopping with a 38 degree temperature.

As “Mauro from Mantova”, Mr Buratti had found something close to fame on a radio phone-in show called La Zanzara, the Mosquito.

His preposterous views – he was also a horrible anti-semite – cost him first his job and then his life. But his death provoked more sorrow than anger. “Rest in peace, wherever that might be, you old conspiracist,” tweeted one of La Zanzara’s hosts, David Parenzo. “I just hope your sad story serves as an example for all those who still fuel doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines.”

Mr Buratti is far from the only spreader of disinformation to suffer at the hands of his own nonsense. Prominent anti-vaxxers have died or been very ill in Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States. Often such people are both victims and perpetrators, both dupes and dupers.

These occasional tragedies, however, are nothing compared to the toll of death and distress among those who simply believed nonsense, mostly found online, but sometimes in mainstream outlets too.

Disinformation, it kills and it maims. And not just during a pandemic. It also erodes faith in the pillars of our far from perfect democracies: in fair elections, in a free press and reality-based journalism and in the rule of law. And that can be deadly too. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent, a free society, as most of us realise, can only exist when people have access to accurate information.

Disinformation threatens our health, our security and, bluntly, our planet (by, for example, distorting the reality of climate change). The sheer volume of deliberately misleading untruth, especially on social media, is daunting and depressing.

And yet as we enter 2022, there are grounds for tentative optimism. Some, at least. Take vaccines. Despite all the noise, all the lies, most people in advanced economies like Scotland have taken the jab. Sure, there are still hard-to-reach communities, especially already marginalised ones. But uptake is high.

The same thing is true of acceptance of other pandemic measures. Of course, there have been shrill voices angry about lockdowns or mask mandates. There are business people understandably distraught by the consequences of Covid, and government actions to reduce its spread. Some have trashed their reputations by straying in to lobbying for irresponsible policy changes. Most, however, have not.

I think this is the biggest good news of all about disinformation: it does not pay; or rather, it does not pay very much. Cannier entrepreneurs – even in the hard-hit hospitality sector – know they have little to gain by repeating or platforming lies about Covid or Covid responses. Because this has a potential commercial cost. Do you want to drink in a bar whose owner spreads lies about a plague?

Now it is absolutely true – here in Scotland and across the democratic world – that a few people have achieved celebrity and social media followings by pandering to Covid denialism. There is – as with so many fringe beliefs – a monetisable pool of idiots out there.

But how big is this market? That might depend on where you are. The likes of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in the US – also facing his comeuppance thanks to defamation laws – only exist because their work is – or was – commercially viable.

Scotland and the UK also have profitable cottage industries for conspiracy theories, disinformation or hyper-partisan content and merchandise. But they are not scaling up. At least for now.

Last year brought important evidence of this. Sputnik, the Kremlin media outlet, pulled out of Edinburgh. Its arrival – after the first independence referendum – was seen as a warning that Scotland, with its big constitutional divide, was vulnerable to authoritarian state disinformation.

It was not an unreasonable assumption. Our social media, after all, brims with incontinent, irrational hyper-partisan behaviours, including the frequent sharing of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods.

Yet Sputnik was never able to financially wash its face in Scotland. The market for its output – “propaganda”, according to international monitors – was just too small.

A few weeks later fringe parties fronted by Kremlin TV personalities, one supposedly for independence and other ostensibly against, failed to make any headway at the polls.

Russian state media, meanwhile, were also at the forefront of casting doubt on “western vaccines”, not least AstraZeneca’s. The tragic result: fewer than half of all Russians have been jabbed and the country’s death toll reflects this. Propaganda – and this can never be repeated enough – kills.

There were huge disinformation events around the world in 2021. In America, the big lie of a stolen election led to a fatal insurrection. The US has a lot of healing to do and disinformation there – domestic and international – remains a real threat. But Trump was defeated and so was his black propaganda.

We must not be complacent about the power of the lie, big and small. But we must also not be defeatist. Reality matters. Facts can prevail, but only if we fight for them.

It can be hard to tell the perpetrators of disinformation from their victims. Mauro from Mantova spread dangerous untruths. He also died from them. It is tempting to feel anger against those who, like him, put us all at risk by ignoring health measures and lying about their causes. It is understandable to rage against the maskless and the unvaccinated. But we should treat lies the way we treat infectious diseases. There are lessons from public health in how we handle propaganda. Let us hate the virus of disinformation and not those it infects.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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