Humans have shown an innate tendency to exaggerate and dramatize news and storytelling. History itself is believed to be exaggerated. Labelling disinformation with a pandemic stamp—a classic piece of overstatement—is at the heart of this notion.
What do Chinese Whispers, movies and content have in common?
Chinese Whispers, also known as Telephone or transmission chain experiment, is a circle game that provides insight into how humans often fail to pass around intact messages without intentional or honest errors accumulating in the retellings along the way.
When was the last time you went to the movies to watch a realistic film full of dull moments characterizing everyday life? To provoke their audiences, filmmakers use shock value and presented in perfect interrelated sequences. From small films to blockbusters, every movie detail is embellished and carefully staged to match the plot, characters and overall message.
Documentaries make up a small percentage of all movie releases because they are real, and simply not entertaining enough for most audiences. Given the weak appetite from the masses, documentaries struggle to sell, and so remain on the periphery of motion picture production.
In terms of reach, engagement, shareability and impact, a movie is a piece of content just like a TikTok short, an Instagram post, a tweet, a TV show, a news article or any other form of communication. With content clutter on the rise, ‘unexpected’ has become the new original.
Inevitably, we’ve reached a point where we believe a communication must be shocking, funny, horrifying, thrilling, futuristic, adventurous, fictitious or dramatic in a way in order to relay an engaging story worthy of people’s attention. For many of us it feels like being real no longer cuts it.
When it comes to mainstream content that is meant to inform and educate, the pursuit of profit and popularity at the expense of fact-based content puts culprits on a treacherous road. Many of our daily decisions are based on a Google search. Spreading intentionally deceiving information not only impacts everyday decision-making, but may also lead to detrimental consequences on the economy, society and our planet.
Why do we tend to disinform?
Disinformation is a manifestation of a trait we’re born with. Exaggeration can be seen as a figure of speech used to evoke certain sentiments or leave lasting impressions. We sometimes choose to sacrifice ethical and factual information in order to make headlines, get ahead in our careers, grow in popularity or achieve commercial gains.
In the wake of the pandemic, we have been witnessing unprecedented levels of disinformation as the lawless WWW took centerstage, exacerbating the inequality between words and reality. There is a citizen-journalist dilemma built into us. We often get carried away with making the headlines versus telling the truth.
To win an argument, especially when engaged in advocacy, we tend to overlook the facts and use any rhetoric at our disposal. The widespread lack of authenticity in all forms of rhetoric is creating a climate of distrust.
Consumers of information have grown cynical about news and all forms of content. This trend is undermining the influence of public opinion as the most powerful and truthful socio-political force globally.
Breaking a story is a source of self-gratification, which may be prioritized as an outcome of presenting information, tainting the integrity of the true story. We find joy in being the first to tell a compelling story and observe the reactions of others. If Dr Strange opened a space portal and we started welcoming alien tourists to Earth, showing aliens around our planet would be the most rewarding job for the avid journalist in all of us!
The psychology behind it relates to content’s next of kin - gossip. Gossip gives people a sense of power by making them feel ahead of the times—harbingers of unheard-of news and telltales. Like most of us, gossipers believe that knowledge is power. The only difference is that the privileged relay of knowledge gives them a sense of superpower.
Like several other ugly parts of human nature, we must consciously resist disinformation by reining in our desire to shock or impress others or serve our own interests, making way for an objective, fact-based approach to information dissemination.
To self-regulate, we should nurture broader stakeholder loyalties beyond our personal or employers’ interests. Our efforts should consider the greater good, we should remain true to our conscience and adhere to a code of ethics we create for ourselves.
Fact-checking is not only the responsibility of the mainstream media, but also the moral duty of other writers, PR professionals and all other content creators. We all have a collective responsibility to curb the spread of false or misleading information.
Whether online or offline, consistent transparency and honesty should govern our content machines. Content creators should know that by spreading deceptive claims, they will be jeopardizing their careers or businesses over the long term, and potentially losing their credibility along with their social license to operate.
It is only ethical that we introduce personal checks and balances designed to ensure sound governance within ourselves. This will help us deliberate over misleading claims and determine the validity of our content before we put it out for the world to consume.