Misinformation, Disinformation, and Lies

It is obvious that people cannot make a serious judgment about anything if the information available provides only half of the truth and not the rest, or if the media present stories in a way that makes it difficult to tell the truth, or if the media express only one side of a disputed issue, or if, as Daniel Boorstin argued, an "image" is presented as a replica of reality.

 Misinformation may spread if no clear official information is present.  The underlying problem is that there is no simple way to prevent that spread, nor is there a single root cause behind it.  Different motives and goals contribute to that spread and to the discussion of the policies, competition, and legitimacy of public authorities.  The internet has brought important changes in how information is spread and how communication occurs.  What is more certain is that prominent public figures play a considerable role in that the spread has regrettably been shown in the context of discussing the responsibility and activity of officials to deal with the pandemic, COVID-19, such as the transmission and the accuracy of reported mortality rates in various countries.

A difficult problem is that much of the misinformation is not completely fabricated, but is the result of spin.  There is no simply way to prevent misinformation, and there is no single root cause for the appearance of misinformation, and there are different motives for it.  Yet it is evident that prominent public figures play a large role in formulating and spreading information, as in the present case about COVID-19.  Attempts to check statements about actions or policies of public authorities are difficult, since they are spread not only in the media, but also in emails, private channels, and above all online.  According to one survey by the Institute for the Study of Journalism, misinformation accounts for 87% of social media interactions while fabricated ones amount to about 12%.

In the modern age it may be difficult to ascertain the truth with the overabundance of information and the mix of half-truths, falsehoods, and state sponsored information.  Misinformation can take different forms.  The most frequent is misleading content, containing true information but with altered details in ways that make it false.  Another form is to describe images as something different from what they are.

There is no direct connection, but it is engaging to note the interest of fiction-writers in misinformation, disinformation, and even lies regarding themselves.  They may be taking advantage of the fact that human beings are often fascinated by evil and fear of the unknown, and are titillated by accounts of extreme behavior.  What else can explain the years spent by Truman Capote, writing in In Cold Blood, the story of the murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, or the obsession of Stephen Sondheim with Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street?.

Bestselling French writer Stéphane Bourgoin, author of more than 40 books of fiction, many about serial killers, has recently confessed he faked his biography and invented his own experience, including his job as a professional football player and the story of his wife who was murdered in 1976 by a serial killer who confessed to the crime.  But he was not a ball player, nor did the "wife" exist, but was a fiction drawn from a young woman he had met briefly in a bar in Daytona Beach, Florida.  This story is even more strange because the young woman was in fact later murdered, in 1975, by a serial killer.  Bourgoin claimed he had trained with the FBI in Quantico, Virginia and had interviewed 70 serial killers, including Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.  His explanation for his lies and the disinformation was that he was not really loved, but he had now arrived "at a balance sheet time."

A similar story concerns another author of the true crime genre.  This is the British writer Paul Harrison, who has published 33 books in this genre and is regarded as one of the world's experts on serial killers.  He too invented part of his life.  He exaggerated his job as a U.K. police officer, which he was for a number of years, and said, though no one knew him, that he had worked closely with the FBI unit in Quantico in 1982.  He claimed to have interviewed or known important criminals.  Among others, they were Ted Bundy; John Wayne Gacy; the U.S. serial killer the "Killer Clown"'; the murderous London Kray twins; and Peter Sutcliffe,the "Yorkshire Ripper," who in May 1981 was convicted of murdering 13 women, "ordered by God," and attempting to murder 7 others in west Yorkshire and Manchester between 1975 and 1980.  Finally, he called it a day and agreed not to take part in any public programs of his supposed interaction with these crminals. As a result of the false disclosures in his writing, his last book, Mind Games, was withdrawn from sale.

A more political mystery is the unsolved assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme on February 28, 1986. Palme, a graduate of Kenyon college, South Dakota, and a traveler in the U.S. was a political leftist, an energetic reformer, a strong proponent of a welfare state and social equality, opponent of the Vietnam war and the South African system of apartheid.

 The Social Democratic pm was shot in the street shortly after leaving a cinema to walk home with his wife in central Stockholm. Palme's decision to visit the cinema was made at very short notice, and virtually none knew about it. He and his wife had walked to the cinema without police or security protection. One individual, a known criminal, was arrested and convicted in 1988 of the murder, but he was acquitted on appeal. Many people made false confessions, and conspiracy theories abounded. Among the alleged culprits were: Yugoslav security services, South Africans, since Palme had been an opponent of apartheid, political rivals, far right groups, and even the victim of mistaken identity because of the turf war of drug dealers.

But a forthcoming new book written by Jan Stocklassa, The man who played with fire, promised to provide new facts about the murder. It is based on materials by the popular novelist Stieg Larsson who died in 2004 and was the author of best selling thrillers, the Millennium triology, published posthumously, based on Swedish society and politics. The best known in the U.S. is The girl with the dragon tattoo, featuring an unusual and memorable heroine. Larsson was obsessed with Palme and was engaged in research on the death of Palme, leaving twenty boxes of notes on the subject. Stocklassa has used this information, letters and summaries of archives. Essentially, he suggests the two alternatives as the guilty party, right wing extremists, and South Africans displeased with Palme's criticism of apartheid. It is up to the Swedish authorities to act on this new information provided.

In doing so those Swedish authorities may provide insight or a key in how the U.S. can deal with the 2020 presidential election. The U.S. must be prepared to deal with the high flood of misinformation and disinformation expected during the presidential campaign. Safeguards are needed to deal with this onslaught and manipulation by malicious actors, both internal and external.


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