We're not as dumb as we look

By: Rob Corbidge, 26 October 2023

 deadly nightshade growing through a mobile phone, art deco style

Assuming that people are stupid when it comes to disinformation is actually a foolish assumption.

Deadly Nightshade, or Belladonna, is not an unattractive plant. There's something beguiling about it even. Yet those lustrous black berries are their own warning to humans not to eat them, or any part of the plant. They indeed look deadly, and almost any human adult would take the hint, even if they've never seen one before in their lives.

Humans are quite smart about detecting what is bad for them.

Two thoughts about content led to this botanical danger diversion. One was the shutdown on X/Twitter of some reliable Open-source intelligence (OSINT) accounts, a method of journalism pioneered in the modern era by Eliot Higgins,  a man without a background in journalism. 

Forming a new kind of journalistic practice, Mr Higgins harnessed information openly available in the digital age to build accurate and telling accounts from ongoing conflicts, starting with weapons identification in the Syrian civil war, and moving on to providing what have been called the best information-based retellings of incidents such as the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Many others, including major news outlets, have since taken up the OSINT ball and run with it. In an age of data, having the right approach to sifting through that data is all-important. OSINT can often provide large pieces of any puzzle.

In the past few weeks, some useful and credible OSINT sources have decided to quit. Mostly, these were operations run on a combination of love and determination, such as @oryxspioenkop and @CalibreObscura (also @UAWeapons ). These three have now ceased their work. 

There doesn't appear to anything sinister in this. The sheer amount of personal effort involved in maintaining such troves of information doesn't bring much in the way of financial rewards, or even simple sustainability, and yet it eats up huge amounts of time. Circumstances are the villain.

This particular type of data-driven journalism has also lately been seized upon by those who have the intention to deceive or obfuscate. I once foolishly supposed that such content would be hard to use for the purposes of fabrication, but have lived to be disappointed. Telling the real from the fake is tricky, and it often speaks to our own biases.

Yet this piece isn't some mournful dirge on our loss of informational innocence. The situation we find ourselves in as old as our ability to communicate. 

So we come to a recent interesting piece of academic study on the subject of disinformation from the UK's School of Journalism at Cardiff University, drawing from questions put to 14 focus groups.

The researchers concluded that "Far from simply not trusting information sources or being passive recipients of disinformation, we argue that audiences have developed a pragmatic scepticism in their relationship with media across different platforms."

Pragmatic scepticism. There's a good old human trait - one which has helped anyone reading this to get to the point that they actually exist. Thank your ancestors.

The research kicks back against the increasing notion in jaundiced circles that disinformation is lapped up by audiences devoid of critical faculties, stupid and wide open to suggestion whether that suggestion benefits them or not. 

Humans aren't logical, but as a species we are not stupid. It's a fact that any piece of disinformation has to be met in equal part with a bias to believe it. In the case when those beliefs are injurious, then the question to be asked is why they are prepared to believe it. Yet every human I've met, including myself, is certainly wrong about a bunch of things they hold as inviolate.

Pragmatic scepticism is our saving grace.