The poison you don't see will still reach you
Jan 25, 2024
A tweet that carries no lies can be more false than a dystopic sci-fi novel, so disinformation doesn’t need to be false to contaminate society.
Last week, a tweet from what appears to be an Italian radio station reported about the conviction of an illegal immigrant for the rape, murder, and dismemberment of an 18-year-old girl. Despite its neutral tone, this seemingly ordinary news report hides a sinister undercurrent that is quietly spreading its poison within society. This represents a classic example of narrative manipulation. Often, the effect of such manipulation remains unnoticed until its destructive impact becomes unavoidably clear.
The story is indeed true. The murder of Pamela Mastropietro in Macerata, a city in central Italy, is undeniably a heinous act. The Nigerian man, Innocent Oseghale, had evaded a refugee assistance program and turned to drug dealing. He meticulously planned and carried out Pamela's rape and murder, later dismembering her body in an attempt to avoid arrest. He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. This horrific incident has been exploited by tabloids worldwide.
The unique aspect of this event was the reporting of the incident on Twitter, often referred to as X, which framed the violence as proof that illegal immigration makes Italy more dangerous. Italy, like Greece, is a primary destination for migrants escaping hunger, war, and death in Africa due to its geographical location. As a society with a conservative nature, Italy is particularly sensitive to immigration issues.
Surprisingly, upon further investigation, there appears to be no radio. The account only refers to a Telegram channel, which is a preferred platform for Russian disinformation actors. Whether it's a coincidence or not, four days after the "RadioGenoa" Twitter post, the German press revealed a vast network of disinformation most likely managed by Russian trolls.
The core content of the tweet emerges in the comments, where a series of videos featuring black men committing violent acts in Europe are posted. These are interspersed with comments endorsing extreme views, advocating for the punishment and torture of the perpetrator, making assumptions about the criminal's background, and descending into outright hostility with calls for increased force and aggression against fugitives.
The Twitter account "RadioGenoa" boasts half a million followers, which means that 500,000 people receive and interact with similar content daily, creating an echo chamber. This echo chamber warps the realities behind each reported tragedy into a mosaic that is perceived as absolute truth by its viewers. A single post from this account reached over 4 million people in just 72 hours. To put the scale of the issue into perspective, this is more than double the combined daily circulation of all Brazilian newspapers.
The incident highlights that content doesn't have to be false to be deemed fake; a simple spin can accomplish this. It uncovers several concerning aspects. Firstly, the reported "truth" exists, but only within a context of absence. Secondly, in this instance, reality is a minor detail. The main event is not the murder, but the crowd advocating for the end of individual freedoms and promoting the law of Talion, or "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you only become conscious of this echo chamber when it becomes prominent. Your social circle shields you from these "realities," but they persist. You might not comprehend the mindset of these half a million people, but your understanding or acceptance doesn't matter. Countless other groups exist out there, and there's little you can do about it.
Disinformation is more than just spreading falsehoods about a prominent politician, and that's actually the least damaging aspect. The process is a metaphorical septic tank that erodes the formal social structure—including law-abiding behavior and the preservation of individual freedoms—through unseen yet solid societal structures. From this perspective, the truthfulness of the message is less important than its effects. This is one reason why, for instance, Donald Trump could potentially regain the US presidency. Trump maintains his voter base by shaping their reality. His supporters are generally not unintelligent or fascistic. Rather, they are confined within echo chambers akin to the Italian "radio", detached from what mainstream media is investigating. Fake news is a social issue, not a technical one. So, before labeling someone as right-wing or left-wing, try to understand their perspective and examine your own. Perhaps your mountain of certainties is as contrived as theirs.