Forget technology — politicians pose the gravest misinformation threat

Article by Rasmus Nielsen: “This is set to be a big election year, including in India, Mexico, the US, and probably the UK. People will rightly be on their guard for misinformation, but much of the policy discussion on the topic ignores the most important source: members of the political elite.

As a social scientist working on political communication, I have spent years in these debates — which continue to be remarkably disconnected from what we know from research. Academic findings repeatedly underline the actual impact of politics, while policy documents focus persistently on the possible impact of new technologies.

Most recently, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned of how “AI-created hyper-realistic bots will make the spread of disinformation easier and the manipulation of media for use in deepfake campaigns will likely become more advanced”. This is similar to warnings from many other public authorities, which ignore the misinformation from the most senior levels of domestic politics. In the US, the Washington Post stopped counting after documenting at least 30,573 false or misleading claims made by Donald Trump as president. In the UK, the non-profit FullFact has reported that as many as 50 MPs — including two prime ministers, cabinet ministers and shadow cabinet ministers — failed to correct false, unevidenced or misleading claims in 2022 alone, despite repeated calls to do so.

These are actual problems of misinformation, and the phenomenon is not new. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations obfuscated on Afghanistan. Bush’s government and that of his UK counterpart Tony Blair advanced false and misleading claims in the run-up to the Iraq war. Prominent politicians have, over the years, denied the reality of human-induced climate change, proposed quack remedies for Covid-19, and so much more. These are examples of misinformation, and, at their most egregious, of disinformation — defined as spreading false or misleading information for political advantage or profit.

This basic point is strikingly absent from many policy documents — the NCSC report, for example, has nothing to say about domestic politics. It is not alone. Take the US Surgeon General’s 2021 advisory on confronting health misinformation which calls for a “whole-of-society” approach — and yet contains nothing on politicians and curiously omits the many misleading claims made by the sitting president during the pandemic, including touting hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment…(More)”.