Prisoners of the Information War

Misinformation is now the global weapon of choice and YOU are the one being held hostage by the highest pay-per-click bidder.

Can you remember the last time you clicked on a headline that factually represented the story it claimed to report? No spin. No sensationalism. No ‘how did I end up reading about a Kardashian?’

Welcome to the clickbait economy: those provocative and outrageous headlines that are a lucrative revenue stream for those in the business of telling and selling us stories. PwC Australia estimates that by 2019, $8.2 billion will be spent each year on internet advertising nationally. In the United States, PWC reports that $13.6 billion was spent on internet advertising in the first quarter of 2015. That’s a lot of clicks!

As media outlets fill our newsfeeds with clickbait spin, we should be outraged by some of what is being served up online under the guise of ‘information’. Social media has primed us over the long game to rapidly digest outrage in short informative bursts but in a connected world, the foreign news isn’t foreign to us anymore. Our attention span quickly wanes while we scroll on past, already looking for our next information hit.

Today’s wars are being broadcast into homes, offices and even handbags and pockets. We should be outraged, but we aren’t. Because in the content war that rages around us we’re being spun sideways from every direction.

Spinning you clockwise toward the next election we have the West’s political spin-doctors with their fear inducing narrative. ‘Extreme Islamists’ and ‘Death Cult’ for example, are terms you have heard repeatedly but these terms don’t constitute a Governmental counter-radicalisation response, just an example of the politics of fear being used influence public perception and nudge future voting outcomes.

Spinning you counter-clockwise, terrorists such as Daesh have been comfortably sitting in a geosynchronous orbit since late 2013 when they effectively weaponised social media with high quality video of beheadings and gay men being thrown from the tops of buildings. Daesh’s click-play content strategy shows a sophisticated level of media acuity, demonstrating they’re just as comfortable with YouTube as they are with rocket launchers and rifles. More importantly, this strategy knowingly exploits the West’s biggest weakness: internal bureaucracy.

While it takes Western Governments 10 mandarins, a Minister and a public affairs office the better part of a day to make ready a single tweet for public consumption, Daesh have churned out a rumoured 40,000 tweets in the same timeframe. With pictures. And video.

And I’d be remiss not to mention Russia, who spin in a strategically unpredictable fashion as they publish more fiction than fact in a concerted attempt to confuse and bemuse. Estimates from StopFake.org, a site set up to ‘struggle against fake information about events in the Ukraine’ report the Kremlin’s troll army number into the hundreds, publishing misinformation in multiple languages around the clock.

Truth be told, misinformation campaigns have long been par for the course in matters of public diplomacy, politics, warfare and even advertising. We use to call the young men going off to fight other people’s wars ‘mercenaries’ for example, now they’re ‘foreign fighters’.

While we’ve come to expect a certain level of deceit from our politicians, the media and the advertising fraternity, the public’s ability to filter fact from fiction is changing.

Have we reached our fill of spin? Or are we just developing a robust bullshit-meter as we’re forced to sift through the latest clickbait headline for actual news? Australian Comedian Tom Gleeson aptly summed this up on ABC’s The Weekly in a Hard Chat with Mamamia founder Mia Freedman by remarking: “Do you ever read your own clickbait and think: Why am I reading this shit?”

The key to fighting propaganda isn’t in a counter propaganda strategy at all. It’s in arming the public with the facts. It’s about having a rational debate so that people can make their own informed choices. Canadian Alicia Wanless-Berk rightly asserts that if you “want to win hearts and minds, avoid denigrating them first… can you really convince someone of your point of view by calling them an idiot for believing lies?”

It’s time we all remembered that politicians are in the business of winning votes, the media in the business of selling news, and terrorists in the business of reigning terror.