Even the most sensible of people can fall victim to fake news

They say a picture is worth one thousand words, but what if the picture isn’t real or never existed? This is one of the dilemmas society has to face given the prevalence of “fake news” or “mis and disinformation”. To clarify, disinformation is a deliberate attempt to mislead. Misinformation is people repeating disinformation without the same malicious intent.

This month, misinformation and disinformation have dominated the media, with the sad story of the Princess of Wales’ apparent disappearance from public life. The headline and search term “Where’s Kate?” flooded news websites and social media, as speculation and conspiracy theories about the so-called missing Princess went into overdrive. While we now know that Princess Catherine is sadly in treatment for cancer, the fact that she had to front the frenzied public, in a video that had every second of it analysed, was more evidence of a massive PR fail. It is human nature to be curious and I don’t think even one sensible person I know has not got caught up in one conspiratorial online trend or another. Despite the term “fake news” being proliferated by former US president Donald Trump, who reportedly said it 2000 times in interviews when he was president, it is a tale as old as time.

In 1897, a newspaper reported that celebrated US novelist Mark Twain was dead. Twain’s response: “The report of my death was an exaggeration. The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.” Superstar singer Taylor Swift has also been the victim of disinformation, as well as identify theft that’s becoming pervasive with the rise of AI, but that’s one of many stories we need to talk about. While not remotely in the same stratosphere as Ms Swift, I, too, have been the victim of fake news from time to time, including my photo being used to sell real estate scams. While I am not a real estate expert, I do hail from a long line of seafarers.

The Associated Press newswire has a dedicated page to addressing fake news. This week it addressed reports that Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge had been blown up before the container ship Dali crashed into it, killing six. According to the AP, the video footage circulating this past week was actually that of an explosion of the Kerch Bridge in 2022, which connects Russia and Crimea and is a key route for the Kremlin in its invasion of Ukraine. My first guess of what happened to the Dali was that there was an engine fail. Big ship plus no power equals big crash. There was really nothing anyone could do and there was no explosion involved.

To bring the story back full circle, on 27 March, the New York Times reported that a Russian disinformation group had spread false information about Princess Catherine in a campaign aimed to make her look terrible. According to the report, Russian websites called “Doppelgangers”, which impersonate real news websites, were behind the spread of these lies. Scary stuff.

We are living in an age when any vacuum of information must be filled, and too often it is by a conspiracy theory going viral on the internet. While disinformation is not new, it’s something world-leading nations must work together to combat in the name of democracy and freedom. Communications Minister Michelle Rowland last year announced draft laws for mis and disinformation would be reviewed. “The Albanese Government is committed to keeping Australians safe online,” Ms Rowland said. “Mis and disinformation sows division within the community, undermines trust and can threaten public health and safety.”

Truth is the first victim in war — and make no mistake, we are in a war of words and ideologies and clickbait and anonymity and ulterior motives. A lie, so they say, can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed. We need to get truth a better alarm clock.