February 3, 2021

In 2020, the world faced a severe rise in disinformation and misinformation.

According to a study by Newsguard, nearly one-fifth of engagement among the top 100 news sources on social media came from sources deemed generally unreliable. The U.N. secretary-general and the director-general of the World Health Organization have declared that we are currently fighting an international “infodemic” — an overabundance of information, both online and offline, that includes deliberate attempts to disseminate false information to undermine public health. Authoritarians around the globe have used disinformation and misinformation to undermine elections, suppress political opposition and discredit public health responses.

“Research has shown that we like content that reinforces our views and biases,” said Jeanne Bourgault, president and CEO of Internews, an international nonprofit that works to build healthy media and information environments around the world. “One study of Twitter showed that a false story reaches an audience of 1,500 people six times faster, on average, than an accurate one.”

The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University recently convened media literacy experts to discuss how authoritarians are harnessing misinformation and disinformation to undermine democracy and freedoms around the world, impacting elections and public health — all while raising the notion of supporting local journalists.

“Disinformation in this era has changed a lot because of the media and the speed,” explained Bourgault. “This has actually given authoritarians a step up in their successful use of disinformation. On social media platforms, disinformation is inherently more successful than the earnest truth.”

It is frequently left to journalists to combat disinformation and misinformation, particularly in places where disinformation and misinformation are the greatest threats. The media, however, faces issues of scale; there tend to be fewer journalists, compared to the impressive misinformation and disinformation ministries employed by bad actors, and the media tends to be underresourced. Both problems are particularly acute when the misinformation tends to outweigh actual news.

“Journalists — and most importantly, users — need seats at the tables where communication and information ecosystems are imagined and shaped,” said Enrique Gasteazoro, general manager of Confidencial, an independent newspaper in Nicaragua known for its investigative journalism. “Perhaps then, the public will stop being treated as subjects, in order to start being treated as agents.”

A central problem is that many journalists — especially local journalists — lack the support they need to fight misinformation.

“Local journalists quite frequently (say), ‘It’s hard for me to track what’s going viral in my community. I just don’t have the tools I need,’” said Rocky Cole, a researcher at Jigsaw, an Alphabet-owned technology incubator working to protect the free exchange of ideas and counter threats to open societies, censorship, disinformation and violent extremism. “We at Jigsaw realized that if we could build a really good disinformation tracker that works at the local level and gives local journalists some clue of what’s going viral, it would be quite helpful. Letting local journalists stay ahead of the narrative instead of waiting until everyone in their community has been overwhelmed by something.”

The fight against misinformation is not confined to the local level. Oftentimes narratives that take root in local communities are planted and cultivated by external actors, such as foreign governments and associated propaganda ministries.

“External players are driving disinformation and misinformation, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China; all around the world, in big and small countries, partially to bolster their reputation,” explained Bourgault. “They try and bolster their reputation as a global player. For example, they will spread misinformation about resolving the global coronavirus pandemic by getting disinformation out there about how badly other countries are dealing with it.”

The battle against disinformation and misinformation will have long-term staying power and will be a constant struggle for free societies, particularly in vulnerable communities or communities already being influenced by these tactics.

“It’s no secret that malicious actors go to great lengths to reach their audiences. They’re constantly seeking new and innovative ways to manipulate media,” said Cole. “A lot of these actors are stealthy state actors who have a lot of money to throw at the problem. But others are smaller actors, malicious PR firms, who are just quite nimble, and it’s really easy for them to stay ahead of the good guys. The best way to stop misinformation and disinformation is at the source, by identifying these misinformation and disinformation campaigns in their formative stages and acting quickly to stop them before they take root. It will be cat-and-mouse for a long time.”

“Countering Authoritarians’ Use of Disinformation: The Road Ahead in 2021” was sponsored by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. The McCain Institute is focused on having an impact on the nation’s and world’s most critical issues and discussions. The institute offers policy research, events, internships and other activities committed to supporting American global leadership, humanitarian action, national security and upholding democratic and human rights.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay