WhatsApp lies. Defamatory Facebook posts. Fake news.
The Virgin Islands, like the rest of the world, is facing an epidemic of disinformation, and the entire community must work together to address the issue by improving communication systems and by teaching information literacy to residents from a young age.
The falsehoods that spread so quickly these days are often grouped into one of two categories: disinformation, which is circulated with the intent to deceive, and misinformation, which is spread inadvertently.
The VI has seen an overwhelming amount of both in recent years. The origins are various. Misinformation might originate with a citizen who carelessly uses social media to share a rumour heard on the street. Other times — particularly during political seasons like the current election campaigns — political operatives and other bad actors deliberately spread lies and half-truths to further their hidden agendas.
In the digital age, they have many tools at hand. They might use a partisan website masquerading as a legitimate media outlet. They might post online comments under a fake name. Or they might use WhatsApp or other messaging applications to spread lies with complete anonymity.
The ramifications can be disastrous. During a health crisis, for instance, inaccurate information can threaten lives. Indeed, many people across the world probably died unnecessarily from Covid-19 because of the conspiracy theories and other falsehoods that have flourished online during the pandemic. Disinformation can also chip away at democracy, damage the credibility of legitimate news media, threaten human rights, empower dictators and other dangerous leaders, and lead to violence and even wars, among other fallout.
Here in the VI, as in other countries, tackling the issue requires a multi-pronged approach.
The media is on the front lines. Journalists, then, must remember the basics, prioritising accuracy, objectivity and integrity over pressure to get quick hits online. Media outlets must also be transparent about their own owners, funders, editors and writers, and they should stick to a code of ethics. Additionally, they should report fearlessly on other media houses that fall short and on people who disingenuously masquerade as journalists to further opaque aims.
But the media can’t do it alone. Fighting disinformation and misinformation requires a community-wide effort.
Since stopping falsehoods entirely is impossible, one crucial response is building information literacy among the population. Everyone who operates a cell phone or computer — including children — should have the ability to accurately assess the validity of any information that pops up on their screen. Students should be taught such skills from a young age, just as they are taught to properly source their research papers. But adults also need to learn these skills.
To help further such goals, the government should adopt a national cross-agency response strategy. However, we caution against trying to tackle the problem by passing draconian laws that restrict free speech. Legislators here have already done far too much damage in this regard with the misguided cybercrime legislation they have passed in recent years.
Instead, the strategy should focus on educating the population and reinvigorating government’s own communication systems.
Falsehoods, after all, flourish in the sort of vacuum that is all too common here when VI leaders withhold information that should be public. Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley has taken a step in the right direction by holding regular press conferences where he candidly answers media questions. But all government agencies also need to do a better job of responding quickly to queries, and freedom-of-information legislation should be passed straightaway as successive government have promised for more than 15 years.
Non-profit organisations, businesses and churches also have a role to play, especially given that they too are regularly hurt by misinformation and disinformation. To fight back, they should adopt response and education strategies where possible. They should also revisit their communications protocols to ensure that they have in place a foolproof system for quickly disseminating accurate information when needed.
Fighting falsehoods is no easy feat. Even professionals struggle to keep up. But the issue is too important to be put on the backburner — especially with an election coming soon.