Writing for ISD’s blog, The Diplomatic Pouch, ISD’s publications editor, Alistair Somerville, reviews the key findings from ISD’s joint event on December 1 with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which explored disinformation in the digital age, and presented solutions to prepare citizens for the future.
We find ourselves in a “thinking fast” age, of clickbait, retweets, and viral videos. Yet, to paraphrase the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, citizens are in desperate need of some “thinking slow” solutions to help them digest, analyze, and respond to a changing information environment.Disinformation campaigns have long targeted human frailties. At their most pernicious, malign influence operations — perpetrated by both foreign and domestic actors — use manipulated or outright false information to deepen societal divides, and they most often use social media platforms as the main vector for their activities. There is no easy fix, and certainly no technological silver bullet. Citizens, and the institutions we build, are the targets, but over the long term must also be part of a solution to build societal resilience and sensitization to disinformation.
On December 1, ISD co-hosted a panel discussion, entitled Disinformation in the Digital Age: Are Citizens Prepared?, with the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to explore possible avenues to tackle this problem. ISD’s director of programs and research, Dr. Kelly McFarland, moderated a discussion with a panel of specialists on different aspects of this issue. Maria Ressa, the renowned Philippine-American journalist and founder of the news-site Rappler, shared her perspectives from her efforts to fight the Duterte regime’s disinformation and legal campaigns against press freedom in the Philippines. Jussi Toivanen, a strategic communications adviser in the Finnish prime minister’s office, gave insights on his country’s rather unique success in educating citizens for a digital age. Mike Caulfield, an award-winning author and professor at Washington State University Vancouver, provided the academic perspective on digital literacy, and ISD director Ambassador Barbara Bodine wrapped up the discussion.Here’s what the panelists told us about how to fight disinformation and inoculate our societies against the virus of falsehoods that continues to spread online:
- Tell the story, and tell it repeatedly: Maria Ressa explained journalists’ role in breaking open controversial news stories, analyzing their content, and providing good information to a broad audience in different formats. People need to hear the truth over and over again to make it stick. The spread of misinformation requires a robust, yet considered, media response that enables citizens to push back against disinformers armed with factual information. According to Ressa, organizations like the International Fact Checking Network and her own Hold the Line Coalition provide critical civil society assistance on both the fact-checking and legal fronts to support the work of a free press.
- Kindergartens are the first line of defense: To accompany fact-based journalism, Jussi Toivanen highlighted the government’s role in teaching media literacy to citizens, both young and old. Ideally, this education begins as early as kindergarten, with teachers who know how to explain to the youngest citizens the power of the iPads they use in their classrooms. Finland has a long history in this area, stretching back to its experience in World War 2. As a small country, it views citizen education in analyzing the information they consume as a matter of “collective defense,” in which all of society must participate. An informed and educated citizenry is a way for small states like Finland to exercise soft power and influence at the European Union level, and beyond.
- It’s not just the human beings, it’s their environment: We find ourselves in an online information environment for which our book-based, formal educational system is inadequate. Mike Caulfield argued for better media literacy curricula in schools and universities to begin to remedy this for younger generations. The lines between domestic and foreign are increasingly blurred, and this complicates citizens’ ability to ascertain the source of the information they consume and makes attribution of disinformation campaigns particularly challenging.
- Each country has unique features, but cooperation matters too: Different histories, cultures, and education systems mean that not every country can be like Finland. Finland’s national story — not least its role in World War 2 and its relationship to Russia — is very different from the United States’. Nevertheless, the Finnish government works with both local NGO partners and other countries to share experiences and best practices. The Philippines, for example, provides other countries with a case study in how states use disinformation against their own citizens. Cambridge Analytica, the notorious political communications consulting firm, used the Philippines as a “petri-dish” for the social media targeting it then used in the United States. While local context remains critical, governments and civil society can learn from each other’s experiences, both good and bad.
- Remember to SIFT: Some skills and approaches are comparable between countries. Mike Caulfield highlighted one tool that educators can use in any context: SIFT. Stop and think about the information you are reading; Investigate the source; Find trusted coverage on the issue; Trace the original content [Learn more about how to SIFT]. Adapt these tools for context, and you can set yourself (and your students) on a path to success. Consider, for example, how you are receiving information e.g. on laptop or on a smartphone, and then adapt your approach accordingly.
- The United States should focus on the personal, the community, and the professional levels: The Finnish idea of “common defense” will not work in the United States, so educators and other stakeholders instead need to focus on issues and values that Americans care about, argued Mike Caulfield. Divide the response into the individual, community, and professional levels, says Caulfield, to focus on the role of individual responsibility, community influencers, and the workplace to help Americans conceive of the problem in the spheres that are most important to them.
- Ultimately, some problems are too big to solve alone: To build resilience for the longer term, the Finnish government has successfully created a network with foreign colleagues. Last year, it published a handbook on countering disinformation, one of the most downloaded Finnish government publications. But the Finns didn’t write it. Their Swedish counterparts put the handbook together, and the Finnish government then translated it into their language and for their own cultural context. For smaller European countries, the European Union also has a multiplying effect, and helps small states to make their voices heard. ISD’s working group paper on information operations also recommends international collaboration as a way to share best practices and stay ahead of the latest technological and informational developments. [Read our working group report, “The New Weapon of Choice: Technology and Information Operations Today“]
- Citizens need to understand their responsibility to help combat this problem: When they are forced to take steps to flag or remove falsehoods from their platforms, social media companies typically focus on the (foreign) actors and attribution, as well as the removal of content in the short term. However, a citizen-focused approach requires people to understand how domestic false narratives spread and why they too might be a target. “If you are emotional, don’t share. If you are angry, don’t share,” said Ressa. Disinformation campaigns often rely on emotionally charged content, on both ends of the political spectrum, in an attempt to capture people’s attention as well as their clicks and shares. A quick pause before you share goes a long way. Adult education, such as that provided in public libraries, can help prepare activists and other groups that are often targeted by campaigns. Members of online parenting groups should also pay attention — such platforms are often a fertile breeding ground for misinformation, particularly about vaccines and children’s health.
- Accountability for technology companies is key: Social media companies have been a major part of the problem, but must also be part of the solution, because they have become such a ubiquitous part of all our lives. The companies do not just provide neutral platforms, the panelists argued. They are, at least in part, responsible for the content that flows on their sites, and government or industry-led regulation must be on the table.
Meanwhile, users must be critical of social media companies’ corporate spin. Read the terms and conditions, and don’t just give away your data. Jussi often asks audiences whether they read the small print when he gives presentations, and the answers are just as you would expect. Accountability for social media companies is therefore not simply an issue of top-down reforms, but of educated citizens becoming savvier inhabitants of the online information environment.
These 9 steps are crucial in the ongoing fight against disinformation, and can help to set us on the path toward “herd immunity” against the “infodemic” around the coronavirus and much more.
Overall, there has to be a global solution. Maria Ressa put it best: “We need a thinking slow solution to a thinking fast problem.” Groups like Carnegie’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations are a major part of this effort, because they bring together the researchers, tech companies, and media organizations working on this problem. ISD is working with the Partnership on a new monthly convening of these groups, and you can listen to our podcast conversation with the project’s director, Alicia Wanless, below.
Want to learn more? Listen to our conversation on Diplomatic Immunity with the Wilson Center’s Nina Jankowicz, The Human Factor: Tackling Information Operations Today: