Propaganda, fake news and disinformation on the internet could destroy us – Susan Dalgety

The internet is a wonder of the modern world, but it is being used to spread dangerous conspiracy theories and undermine democracy, writes Susan Dalgety

Bill Gates has been forced to deny he's involved in a bizarre plot to implant tracking devices in every human being on the planet (Picture: Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone via AP)
Bill Gates has been forced to deny he's involved in a bizarre plot to implant tracking devices in every human being on the planet (Picture: Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone via AP)

Since lockdown, my life has moved online. My ancient iPhone 6, second-hand when I bought it, is by my side 24 hours a day. (Top tip: always buy refurbished tech, works just as well as the new models and costs far less).

I fall asleep to the sounds of American liberal news channel MSNBC and wake in the middle of the night to listen to Rachel Maddow, patron saint of progressives everywhere. I scroll through Twitter before I get up. I read my newspapers online while eating breakfast, and yes, I subscribe to the Scotsman – you should too. What work I do, now that my Malawi projects are on hold because of the pandemic, I carry out online. Zoom meetings, Facetime chats, hours of endless Google searches, some of them useful.

I shop for everything on my phone, from my lockdown workwear – leggings – to supplies for our new coronavirus tradition, Saturday cocktails. Today’s is an Espresso Martini. I stay in touch with friends and family, close by and across the world. It is as easy to have a weekend catch-up with Martha in New York’s East Village as it is to DM my sister in Dumfries.

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And throughout the day I get updates from Malawi about the relentless rise of the virus there. Malawi, with one of the smallest economies in the world, also has most expensive data, at £21.50 for 1GB of data. The cheapest bundle here costs, literally, pennies. But despite the cost, around 40 per cent of the 18 million population has a mobile phone.

Digital life now our real life

Even my 80-something mother, who resisted the lure of the internet until recently, has her smartphone and iPad sitting by her landline. (Top tip: always buy your mother a new piece of tech for a landmark birthday, refurbished won’t cut it on special occasions).

Our four grandchildren are, of course, digital natives, born into a world where life happens on YouTube and WhatsApp is their playground.

The advent of lockdown saw schools retreat on to Microsoft Teams. Across Scotland teachers dropped dense PowerPoint ‘decks’ once a week and parents struggled to coach their kids through them, before giving up and letting little Jack or Olivia watch Netflix.

Our digital life is now our real life. What started as a grand experiment in August 1991, when Tim Berners-Lee loaded the first ever website onto the new-fangled internet, is now as essential to humanity as water and sanitation.

In 2016, a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly even declared access to the internet a basic human right.

“The internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies,” the UN said.

Putin’s online army

It is also one of the most powerful instruments for interfering in democracies, as a report published by Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee earlier this week shows.

The report said the UK was “clearly a target” for disinformation campaigns around its elections, and that there was “credible open source commentary” suggesting “influence campaigns” from the Russians during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

In other words, Putin and his online army may well have flooded Facebook and other social media platforms with fake news to encourage the break-up of the UK. Just as they did in the 2016 presidential elections, which led to the inauguration of Donald J Trump as leader of the free world.

And just as they most likely did during the Brexit campaign. Only it seems the Conservative government couldn’t be bothered to investigate that breach of democracy. For fear of what they might expose perhaps?

Fans of Cold War spy novels will not be surprised that Putin’s Russia interferes in American and British elections. After all, psy ops (psychological warfare) was the main weapon used by the USA and Soviet Russia in their 30-year battle for supremacy.

Vaccine conspiracy theories

America and Nato may have won that war, but Putin is making great advances in this new battlefield.

America is now pitied across the world as the coronavirus burns its way through 50 states, while its President fiddles (allegedly) his tax returns. Britain leaving the EU will damage our economy and weaken our global influence, and Scotland leaving the UK would further diminish Britain’s standing.

It is not just Alex Salmond, Russia Today TV presenter and former First Minister, who would cheer the break-up of the UK. Vladimir Putin would also raise a glass of ice-cold vodka to toast the new world order.

The speed and global reach of the internet has also fuelled the dystopian debate that insists humans born male can become female, simply by wishing they had a cervix.

It has allowed a cancel culture which sees women, even those as famous as JK Rowling, ostracised for daring to question this new gender orthodoxy. And social media is the seed bed for nonsensical conspiracy theories about vaccines – some planted, surprise, surprise, by Putin’s digital troops.

A third may not use Covid vaccine

Microsoft founder and global philanthropist, Bill Gates, had to go on the record this week to debunk a theory that he is supporting the development of a coronavirus vaccine because he wants to use it to implant tracking devices in the world’s population. You may well laugh, but a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 28 per cent of US adults believe this nonsense, and here in the UK, a third of people say they are unsure or definitely would not use a coronavirus vaccine.

And it is largely people who prefer social media to TV news who hold such extreme views.

I am no epidemiologist – though I do have a PhD in Googling – but even I understand that if not enough people take up the vaccine once it’s found, we will not achieve herd immunity. Life will not get back to normal.

“We need to get the truth out there,” Bill Gates said during his interview on CBS News on Wednesday.

And the truth is that the internet is one of the world’s greatest ever inventions, up there with the wheel and vaccines.

Social media is one of the wonders of the world, allowing a child in central Malawi to connect instantly with their friend in Orkney. But the network that has transformed the world into a global village also has the potential to destroy us. Now let me check Twitter to see what Trump has been up to today.

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