Against Misinformation Culture: Prince Harry Speaks Up

La famiglia reale britannica subisce da sempre la persecuzione della stampa, con conseguenze a volte drammatiche per i suoi membri. Ora il principe Harry si fa valere e denuncia l’effetto nefasto che la disinformazione sta avendo sulla società moderna.

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Sarah Davison

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The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been vocal about the way in which hate speech has affected their lives. Prince Harry has spoken about his struggles with his mental health following the death of his mother in 1997, largely attributed to the paparazzi chasing her car. He has also cited the racist and misogynist trolling of his wife Meghan Markle as the reason that the couple abandoned all social media platforms in 2020. However, misinformation does not only affect prominent people, warns the Duke, but is nothing short of a global humanitarian crisis that has already had serious consequences. From climate emergency denial to riot-causing conspiracy theories, anti-immigration rhetoric to anti-vaxx sentiment, the spreading of lies and its enablement by online platforms and the mainstream media has become public enemy number one. Last year, Prince Harry was invited to take part in an Aspen Institute conference on Information Disorder. At a virtual summit organised by the magazine Wired, he talked about the experience, and about why he feels impelled to speak up now. 

Prince Harry (English accent): I learned from a very early age that the incentives of publishing are not necessarily aligned with the incentives of truth. The UK press conflate profit with purpose and news with entertainment and they don’t report the news, they create it; they successfully turn fact-based news into opinion-based gossip with devastating consequences. I lost my mother to this self-manufactured rabidness and obviously I’m determined not to lose the mother to my children to the same thing.

SOPHISTICATED SPAM

The internet is being defined by hate, division and lies, says Prince Harry, and no one is safe online or offline. 

Prince Harry: The scale of misinformation now is terrifying; no one is protected from it, you can’t hide from it, and we continue to see lives ruined, families destroyed. In one single household you can have three or four versions of reality. This isn’t a case of ‘this could happen to you!’, this is already happening to you, and we can all feed into it if we’re not aware of it. But if we are aware of our digital diet, what we consume every single day, then perhaps we’d be more conscious about what we pass on, what we don’t, what we are actually consuming and the fact that it is actually affecting the way that we think.  

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SUPER-SPREADER ACCOUNTS 

Surprisingly few so-called ‘super-spreader’ accounts propagate hateful content and misinformation through the internet, says Prince Harry, who provides some interesting statistics.

Prince Harry: We know that a small group of accounts are allowed to create a huge amount of chaos and destruction online, and without any consequence whatsoever. Thanks to another independent report, more than 70 per cent of the hate speech about my wife on Twitter could be traced to fewer than fifty accounts. On Facebook, a dozen accounts are responsible for over 65 per cent of totally made-up and harmful Covid misinformation, which can reach into the billions of people. And for climate denials the vast majority of information was driven by just ten accounts in the US and Russia. More than 70 per cent of videos were in violation of YouTube’s own policies on misinformation, and they came to the users via the recommendation tour within YouTube’s own algorithm! 

PROFIT FROM PAIN

This means that the problem could be significantly reduced through regulation that is currently absent or inadequate. However, says the Duke, there is another massive problem: the mainstream media, notably the tabloids, which pick up on and give credibility to unverified claims. This happens because they make money from it. 

Prince Harry: Perhaps the most troubling part of this is the number of journalists interacting with and amplifying the hate and the lies but they regurgitate these lies as truth. Clickbait is the descendent of targeted advertising: the truth is pay-walled but the lies are free. But when that same lie is given credibility by journalists or publishers it’s unethical, and an abuse of power; if the media is supposed to be holding us to account, who is holding them to account? Because it’s become like a digital dictatorship.

THE GOOD MEDIA

But, he stresses, just as last year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, the media itself can fight back. Prince Harry went out of his way to praise those members of the media who stand up for the truth. 

Prince Harry: I’ve grown up learning that news should be sacred ground. We have to invest in and support professional, honest journalists who respect and uphold the values of journalism. Real journalists have the power and the will to tackle racism, misogyny, lies, all of it, from within their own system. So what I would love to see is a movement for journalists to expose the unethical, the immoral and dishonest amongst them. 

WE CAN FIX IT

And we can turn things around, he believes, if everyone plays their role.

Prince Harry: We can fix this, but we need everyone’s help. This isn’t about telling people to stop using the platforms. It’s about being aware enough to be able to protect yourself from the harms and know when you are being used. I strongly believe that collectively as human beings we have the talent and conviction to make change within the systems that we operate. People now more than ever want and need truth, they want and need trust and they want and need transparency, so everyone can come to these communities online and off and be welcomed no matter who they are, what they represent and what their beliefs are: but we need to have a shared reality. 

SUPER-SPREADERS

Added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary late last year, this term became prominent during the pandemic as it followed the accepted principle of infectious diseases: that 20 per cent of the population spread 80 per cent of the infections. Given that it is unfair to target individuals for this trend (unless they fail to take adequate precautions) a focus was placed on super-spreader events, gatherings of people where a single infection spurred a large outbreak among attendees. The term then caught on to explain how a few online accounts spread lies across the internet and beyond. Certain criteria tend to increase the risk: in the case of a virus, closed spaces with poor ventilation and crowds in close contact. In the case of misinformation, attention-grabbing yet vaguely-defined information, respected adherents and simple repetition can serve to spread a dangerous lie across the unregulated internet. 

MEGXIT

The term ‘Megxit’ has been widely used as convenient shorthand to refer to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to give up royal duties, which was made official in March 2020. However, as Prince Harry has claimed, it is a misogynistic one, created by a troll in 2018, amplified by royal correspondents, and then spreading online until it circulated in mainstream media. There, it appeared in a headline for tabloid The Sun and was also used in serious newspapers, such as The New York Times. So catchy was the term that merchandising followed. Megxit’s similarity to the term ‘Brexit’ is clear, but it also notably targets Meghan Markle as the cause of the break with royal protocol. Back before the wedding, it was used to imply Markle was a social climber or gold digger, or worse. Nevertheless, and despite revelations made by the magazine Vanity Fair, the Collins English Dictionary included ‘Megxit’ as one of their ten Words of 2020 and listed it in the online edition of their dictionary. The term even has its own Wikipedia page.

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