Disinformation on the Internet is so widespread that it includes conspiracies as absurd, for example, as the one insisting that birds do not exist. That’s why we have to stay alert.
Let me tell you about the birds.
On social networks, which occasionally turn into digital jungles, you can find the evil and funny claim that the majority of the birds we see are not real. They are drones, supposedly, on a mission to spy on us. From 1959 to 2001, the US government set out to kill 12 billion birds, according to the lies in www.birdsarentreal.com, which claims to be the voice of the theory. If we could catch a live bird, it claims, we would understand its complex espionage machinery.
Again, all this is false.
The claim started as a parody by Peter McIndoe. His goal was to poke fun at all the lies and disinformation campaigns on social networks. By inventing something as foolish and crazy – like insisting that birds do not insist – he was giving us a way to compare and rule out other lies that circulate on the Internet without any sort of restrictions. “Dealing in the world of misinformation for the past few years, we’ve been really conscious of the line we walk,” McIndoe told The New York Times in 2021. “The idea is meant to be so preposterous … we make sure nothing we’re saying is too realistic.”
McIndoe launched the conspiracy theory in 2017, and since then it has been followed by many others that – like his – are completely false. Like the wacko idea that Covid vaccines contain microchips used by the government or extra-terrestrials to control us through the 5G networks. Clearly, the claim is laughable. But I am surprised that so many people around me have heard of it.
The first problem would be passing a microchip through a needle. If that was just some foolishness from some airheads, it would not matter. But it is dangerous, and it kills, because it generates doubts among people who are not vaccinated. Most of the hospitalizations and deaths from Covid affect those people. The anti-vaxxer movement, so distant from real science, is plagued by primitive fears and ideological prejudices.
Many other lies are circulating on the Internet. In Russia, for example, there’s a law that bans news media from using the words “war” or “invasion” for what is happening in Ukraine. I was there, I saw it and that is exactly what it is. A brutal invasion, a senseless war. But the Russians are hearing only what Putin allows.
And there are other totally ridiculous inventions. Like the one about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada being the son of Fidel Castro. It got around the social networks so much that the Canadian government had to publicly deny it.
Another dangerous conspiracy is the one promoted by Donald Trump and known as the Big Lie. Trump and his most loyal supporters still believe the lie that the last presidential elections were fraudulent and that Joe Biden lost. In June of 2021 I asked Trump in Texas if he was finally ready to publicly admit that he lost. He was not. “We won the election,” he said, and left.
Of course, that is false. Trump lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College, 306-232. But it’s terrible that millions of people believe the lie. More than half of all Republicans (53%) believe Trump won, according to a Reuters poll. Trump’s conspiracy theory has put US democracy at serious risk. Doubts about the results of elections are an essential characteristic of dictatorships and authoritarian governments.
I know because I come from a country of fake news. Throughout my childhood I grew up in a Mexico dominated by the abuses, frauds and crimes committed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. From 1929 until 2000, it imposed what Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship,” fraudulently handpicking the nation’s presidents. So Mexicans know perfectly well how to detect a politician who is lying. There are many examples of Latin American leaders who invent coup conspiracies or media campaigns – domestic or foreign – against them to excuse the failings of their own governments and distract the people.
Disinformation has its breeding ground on the Internet. Social networks have turned us into communications media. We all emit and receive information. And therefore we can all be influenced. For example, anyone wanting to influence the Hispanic community – the second largest electoral group in the United States – need only know that 85 percent of Hispanics use YouTube, 72 percent use Facebook, 52 percent use Instagram and 23 percent use Twitter, according to the Pew Center. They no longer need television networks or newspapers to get their messages out. Whether true or false. The blessed social networks are there, like a hose without a cork.
Today, any influencers, celebrities or presidents can put out their version of anything, without having to show it is true. To counter that, independent journalism is required. The mantra is simple: in the face of attacks, disinformation and lies, more journalism. But that, unfortunately, does not guarantee the truth. “I worry a lot that we’re in an era where people don’t fully respect the power of reporting,” former New York Times editor Dean Baquet said in a lengthy interview with The New Yorker. “Social media rewards snark and nastiness and off-the-cuff opinionating”.
It’s true. Like everyone else, my social networks are full of bots and disinformation . That’s why we have to read and follow only credible journalists. And throw out the talkers and the liars. Social networks are full of opinions and commentaries with no basis in fact. But the true work of journalists is based on facts, verification and trusted sources. “Without facts you cannot have the truth,” Nobel prize winning journalist Maria Ressa said. “And without truth you cannot generate trust.”
Long live the facts!
Birds do exist, Russia did invade Ukraine, vaccines do work, Trump lost, Biden won and the false conspiracies live only inside the heads of the most incompetent. The solution to so much disinformation is more information. And taking a close look at a bird.