Counterfeiting information.

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

7 thoughts on “Counterfeiting information.

  1. A good first step would be surgeon-general type warnings, as Twitter has started to do, & Facebook is supposedly doing.

    It’s easy to lock up disinformation peddlers, but more will replace them – and they might just play the “free speech martyr” card – unless their financial sources can be traced & asset-frozen and/or fined. As already happens with financial fraudsters.

  2. I really like your term “information counterfeiting” rather than fake news or misinformation, Pablo. I think that is exactly what we should all be calling it. I’ve been following the progress of Billy Te Kahika’s (and Jami-lee Ross’s) election campaign with great interest as dear friends of mine whom I would never have suspected would fall for conspiracy theories have done exactly that and appear to have been faithful followers of NZPP/Advance NZ during the election. I think they initially got hooked as they don’t support vaccination and are totally against 5G and it all went (downhill) from there. They fell down the rabbit hole completely – and one of these people is, or was, a professed socialist. I don’t know if they realise a lot of the rubbish that has been fed to vulnerable people in the main via that political party has come from the QAnon playbook and has ultra right-wing origins. Perhaps they simply don’t want to know that as too many of the conspiracies fit with their current world view. I have also read on social media, claims that NZPP and Advance were the recipients of funds from wealthy US donors. One even made the claim that Steve Bannon was involved via his association with Michael Stace. This might just be entirely fanciful of course – and another form of conspiracy.

    I read recently a comment that made a lot of sense to me, that as NZ does not have Murdoch-based news here, that is why we appeared to get off relatively lightly during the lead up to the election – apart from BTK & co – and Gerry Brownlee’s failed attempt at counterfeit information. However, I wonder if the recent idiotic statement by Laura Ingraham of Fox News on NZ’s “Covid camps” is a Murdoch organisation’s attempt to meddle from afar and to create the impression that our govt’s handling of the pandemic is rather shady and authoritarian (rather than the reasonably lighthanded way it has been dealt with) so as to besmirch NZ’s reputation as a world-beating leader in dealing with Covid-19.

  3. Hi Di.
    Not sure why your comments went to the trash but I approved the 5PM one (they all looked to be the same). Sorry for that.

  4. People who spread false information need to be treated as the danger to society that they are. It is ridiculous that people doing harmless things like smoking weed get arrested, but posting politicalised lies on Facebook is perfectly legal. What the hell, New Zealand. The rest of the world is watchig… and laughing.

    @Di: Murdoch owns a 20% share in the Australian corporation APN that owns many NZ newspapers including the Herald.

  5. Thanks Gorkem – that says plenty about the quality of most of their “journalism” and particularly about who gets to write their opinion columns.

  6. It may not have been such a far-fetched claim (Steve Bannon being in some way associated with NZPP and Advance NZ). I’ve found a link to Miles Guo’s GNews website – got there via an NPR article when I went to investigate further. ( A paragraph in the article states: “Another protest against CCP has started at 1pm in front of the gate of CCP’s consulate-general in Auckland. A large group of NFSC citizens wearing the same blue t-shirt and wearing the same hat have started another anti-CCP protest with an online conference with NFSC TV, Miss Sara, Mr Steven Bannon and Mr Miles Guo.”. How odd the world has become.

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