Did You Know?

People agree across the globe: Lies can be weapons

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF), 73% of people worldwide are concerned about “fake news” and false information being used as a weapon. The online survey in 27 markets on six continents included 33,000 respondents, which means that there are a lot of worried people. That 73% of the public is an increase from the findings in the 2018 Trust Barometer (PDF), when nearly 70% of those surveyed wereconcerned about the weaponization of false information.

What exactly does “fake news as a weapon” mean, though? After all, there is no single definition of “fake news”it could mean disinformation, a flawed news report that requires a correction, or even a demonstrated fact with which someone disagrees. A 2017 Edelman “special flash poll” attempted to home in on a meaning;responses included “bad reporting,” “name-calling” and “legitimate threat.”

And “weapon” is just as unclear. For example, hate and misinformation that was spread on social media in Myanmar led to bloodshed and deaths — resulting in a Facebook-sponsored “special human rights assessment” into its presence in the country (PDF). By contrast, Americans live in a country where “weapon” is more likely to mean propaganda, rather than armed mobs — as terrible as the results are in both cases.

To explain the danger Americans might feel, Edelman’s president and CEO referred to Gresham’s Law. As Richard Edelman wrote in January 2018: “Gresham’s Law, based on the 18th century observation that debased currency drives out the good, is now evident in the realm of information, with fake news crowding out real news.”

But there is hope, too, in Edelman’s written piece, for the nearly three-quarters who are concerned about the effects of “fake news”: “People’s concern about fake news and their willingness to listen to experts show that they yearn for knowledge. … Every institution must play its part by educating its constituents and joining the public debate, going direct to the end-users of information. That means taking the informed risk to join the battle for truth so that facts triumph over fears.”