A Disinformation Age?

Those of us who are fans of Silent Witness had a pretty traumatic beginning to the week. This week’s show, which broadcasts its two-hour drama in two hour-long parts, one on Monday and one on Tuesday, included some truly traumatic stuff: those of us who watched on Monday night saw one of the three main characters, Dr Harry Cunningham, seemingly brutally executed, doused with petrol and then set on fire. It was very realistic – so much that someone naive like me was totally convinced, and even began to mourn poor Harry, my favourite character.

What has this got to do with the subject of this blog, and why have I called it ‘the disinformation age’? Well, being a bit of a geek, my laptop was sitting on my coffee table as I watched the programme, and as the titles rolled at the end of the show, I found myself immediately looking on the web to try to find out what would happen next – being naive, it still hadn’t occurred to me that Harry wasn’t actually dead. I was wondering whether they were going to replace him, or whether this was going to be the end of the show, or something else dramatic. I couldn’t find much directly, so I checked on the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia. There wasn’t much there, but there was a list of the main characters, and how long they had been in the show. Of the three main actors, William Gaminara was listed as being in the show ‘2002-present’, Emilia Fox as ‘2004-present’, and Tom Ward, who plays Harry, was listed as ‘2002-2011’. That last fact confirmed, it seemed, that Harry was dead, gone from the show….

Of course the BBC had done the usual kind of tricks to hide the fact that Harry wasn’t actually dead – he didn’t appear in the trailer for the second part, and the actor’s name was conspicuous by its absence from the opening titles, so it was a solid shock when he did reappear, some time into Tuesday’s episodes – and added to the fact that the previous episode had been full of flashbacks and dream sequences, it took some time to realise what was actually going on. That, however, is just ordinary broadcasting, and nothing that out of the ordinary. At the end of the episode, rejoicing at Harry’s return, I went back to Wikipedia – and already the page had mysteriously changed, listing Tom Ward as ‘2002-present’….

So what was going on? Why do I call it the ‘disinformation age’? Well, of course I don’t know who edited the Wikipedia page – but if it was anyone connected to the BBC, I’m impressed. They had thought through how to really convince people that the character was dead, had understood what people like me were likely to do, and set out to create a perfect illusion – to supply the disinformation needed to complete that illusion. On me, it worked – though I know very well I’m naive in a lot of ways, and actually like to be convinced by this kind of thing – but there is a somewhat more sinister side to this. If illusions like this can be created for artistic reasons, aren’t they equally likely to be created for other, less palatable purposes? And then what do we trust? ‘Official’ information? ‘Trusted’ sources? A combination of these? Could we be moving to an age where as much effort is put into the creation of false information as is put into the presentation of real information? A disinformation age?

One thing’s for sure – I’ll be even less trusting than I was before….. and that, in itself, may not be such a good thing. Mind you, I thought the week’s Silent Witness was great!

8 thoughts on “A Disinformation Age?

  1. In a way, a wiki like Encyclopaedia Dramatica is a self-conscious manifestation of the disinformation age. For all the truth claims of crowdsourcing (mutual fact-checking, aggregators of knowledge, etc.), there is a mirror image of chaos and misinformation, whether or not deliberately produced.

  2. One of the most interesting things to me was the timing of it all – I checked wikipedia on both occasions when the titles were rolling at the end of the programme: it hadn't even finished, and wikipedia in both cases had already been updated. Someone was one the job in real time…

  3. It certainly fooled me! However I would like to add that I think that Silent Witness is one of the classiest dramas of all and that it is difficult to think of life after Silent Witness …..The three actors are really strong and convincing and after all these years of forensic medicine something must have rubbed off and could probably be awarded honorary degrees in Forensic Science! The technical text they have to learn is quite admirable! The BBC deserves the highest praise for this excellent series.

  4. hi! 🙂 im really interested in what you had to say about disinformation, and it makes me wonder- bearing in mind that information found on the web (but not only the web, naturally) can be manipulated and made to mislead, how can we ever be sure of 'real' information? considering as the internet is on its way to becoming the world's only medium of communication and information, the future seems pretty bleak to me :\

  5. Its all in the balance of probability plus logic. When it happened I took mysrlf out of 'suspension of disbelief' and thought, what a shame!, but also is it true? then decided to wait until the next episode. The secret of not being taken in by disinformation is 'don't jump to their conclusions, wait for the evidence, as THEY (our wonderful pathologists) undoubtedly would…'

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