Misinformation—A Choice for the Rest of Us

Misinformation—A Choice for the Rest of Us

Chirag Shah

If you have kept even one eye (or ear) on the news coming out in the last couple of years, chances are you have heard about “misinformation” and “disinformation.” It seems suddenly everyone is talking about it. There are election outcomes allegedly changed due to misinformation, and people making decisions about vaccines based on such bad information. But this is not new. Such issues with information production and dissemination have existed for centuries.

In the Great Kurukshetra War (considered to have taken placed 1000 BCE), the Pandavas (our heroes, at least by one view) were struggling to win against the Kauravas. Their fearless commander-in-chief was Dronacharya, who just could not be defeated after days of war. Krishna, the great strategist and considered to be an incarnation of god himself, was advising and fighting with the Pandavas. He realized that traditional ways to defeat Dronacharya would not work. They needed a different strategy—somehow attacking Dronacharya emotionally. His one weakness was his son. If he were to believe that his son had died, he might give up this fight. Krishna advised Arjuna, his biggest disciple and one of the Pandavas, to lie to Dronacharya, telling him that his son was dead. Arjuna also happened to be Dronacharya’s former student. He could not bring himself to do such a heinous act to kill his teacher, even though that teacher was an enemy now. Krishna even quoted “dharma” (duty) as a way to influence his student to do this, saying that it was his duty to defeat the enemy, no matter what the cost. Here you have god himself permitting you to do this act of deception, justifying it as the right thing to do to defeat the enemies, and yet, Arjuna still did not give in.

—Yuthuisthir also knew that lying was wrong, but if a god demands it, how could you resist?—

Krishna then turned to other two Pandavas—Bheema and Yudhisthir—the former being very powerful and the latter known for always telling the truth. Dronacharya’s son was named Aswathama. As it happened, there was also an elephant on the battlefield named the same. Krishna ordered Bheema to kill that elephant and started spreading the word that Aswathama had been killed. The word got to Dronacharya, who could not believe it. He needed a confirmation and he knew that, while Yudhisthir was on the other side, he could trust him to tell the truth. So he asked Yudhisthir if the news was true. Krishna knew this would happen and had already prepared Yudhisthir to respond. Yuthuisthir also knew that lying was wrong, but if a god demands it, how could you resist?

To Dronacharya’s inquiry, Yudhisthir responded “Aswathhama hatha” (Aswathhama is dead) and then he murmured (something that Dronacharya could not hear), “Narova Kunjarova” (I don’t know if it is a man or an elephant). Hearing this half-truth, Dronacharya fell into despair and dropped his weapons. He sat down in deep grief and meditation. This gave Dhristyadhumna, the commander-in-chief of the Pandavas army, the chance to come down off his chariot and behead Dronacharya.

The legend has it that Yudhisthir was so honest that his chariot would walk above ground. When he uttered that misleading statement, his chariot came down to ground. He and Arjuna left with a guilt that would never go away. That one little lie changed the course of the war and the history that followed. More importantly, this manipulation of truth was commissioned by a higher authority—god himself. If doing a simple act of disinformation could win you a war and was authorized by god, why would you not do it? Arjuna, who was the biggest believer of Krishna, fought against all his loyalty and faith to follow his moral compass. Yudhisthir, the truth teller, gave in to the god, realizing that telling one little lie in a small context could lead to positive things in the bigger picture. Bheema simply followed the order without thinking through small or big.

As I reflect on this tale that I remember hearing in my childhood in India, I am drawn to believe that it wasn’t the last time something like that has happened. In fact, this has become more common and dangerous in recent times. Misinformation and disinformation happens for all kinds of reasons, and we can talk about the actors that are starting this. But I want to talk about the rest of us who are executing or spreading them. In the story above, Krishna was the actor for that disinformation campaign. I’m not giving him a pass, but let’s say we couldn’t change what he wanted to do and what reasons he had behind it. What we could do is be like Arjuna, Yudhisthir, or Bheema. When some mis- or dis-information comes our way, what do we do? We have three choices:

  • Arjuna choice: question everything comes you way, even if it’s from god, before acting on it. Have personal values and high morale that guide your decision-making.
  • Yudhisthir choice: be truthful and do the right thing as long as possible. But if something comes from an authority or someone you admire, accept it.
  • Bheema choice: blindly follow, share, and act on information coming your way. Who has time or energy to consider consequences?

Maybe it is too much to ask everyone to follow the “Arjuna choice,” but can we at least practice “Yudhisthir choice”? Yes, he gave in to a higher authority and aided in relaying the disinformation, but he at least understood the cost for that deception and bore the guilt for the rest of his life. If we choose to perpetuate misinformation or disinformation, are we at least willing to take responsibility and reflect on the consequences? Unfortunately, we find too many of us going with “Bheema choice” because it is not clear to us what’s so wrong sharing a sensational story or a new story coming from a place with propaganda without questioning it. Who could get hurt? What’s the cost of a simple click?

We only get to see this cost and the danger of spreading misinformation in retrospect. Like the democracy being hijacked by disinformation propaganda machines, or the lives lost to those who bought into COVID-19 misinformation. It is easy to blame the few small number of actors who start the flow of such bad information, but I believe it is the indifference of a very large number of followers to what their seemingly innocuous actions may result in that causes more harm. If we believe in democracy, then we should know that the best way to get rid of something or someone bad is through a vote. Every time we click or share, we are voting. Maybe we couldn’t help with someone or something being bad and sharing false information, but we have the power to vote, and if most of us could choose to not share that information, we have a great chance to stop it and stop the actors.

Cite this article in APA as: Shah, C. (2021, September 16). Misinformation—a choice for the rest of us. Information Matters. Vol.1, Issue 9. https://r7q.22f.myftpupload.com/2021/09/misinformation-a-choice-for-the-rest-of-us/

Chirag Shah

Dr. Chirag Shah is a Professor in Information School, an Adjunct Professor in Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and an Adjunct Professor in Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) at University of Washington (UW). He is the Founding Director of InfoSeeking Lab and the Founding Co-Director of RAISE, a Center for Responsible AI. He is also the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Information Matters. His research revolves around intelligent systems. On one hand, he is trying to make search and recommendation systems smart, proactive, and integrated. On the other hand, he is investigating how such systems can be made fair, transparent, and ethical. The former area is Search/Recommendation and the latter falls under Responsible AI. They both create interesting synergy, resulting in Human-Centered ML/AI.