Disinformation is the deliberate creation of falsehood with the intent to deceive. Misinformation is the unwitting sharing of that false information. The two terms frequently get confused, but both are proliferating, and the impact on society is very real.
A report produced earlier this month by The Aspen Institute, a global non-profit organisation promoting humanistic causes, is emphatic about the damage being caused. “Hundreds of millions of people pay the price, every single day, for a world disordered by lies,” reads the introduction.
What is becoming clear is that disinformation isn’t going to stop, and online platforms are either unwilling or unable to suppress it. The responsibility, therefore, is thrown back on us, the audience: our role, we’re told, is to wise up and get better at discerning fact from fiction.
“Right now, there’s a perfect storm of disinformation spilling out into the real world,” says Alex Mahadevan at MediaWise, a US project promoting digital literacy. “The Covid pandemic [has highlighted] the life-and-death consequences, and since 2016 we have seen what online misinformation can do to democracies around the world. The US [presidential election] was a cakewalk compared to what we have seen in countries like the Philippines and Brazil.”
In recent days, one of the world’s most powerful companies and the world’s most powerful nation have both launched programmes to try and tackle the misinformation crisis. Google News Initiative is teaming up with student, journalism and literacy organisations to create educational material.
That material, in English and Spanish, will teach not only how to spot falsehood, but also how to talk to family and friends about digital literacy.
Meanwhile, the US government, warning of misinformation’s ability to “undermine public confidence in our institutions”, has created educational resources and even a series of graphic novels to convey the risk to society from endemic falsehood. “We’re now seeing a lot of these kind of initiatives,” says James Pamment from the Department of Strategic Communication at Lund University in Sweden. “What you're seeing with stuff like coronavirus and vaccines is that they're almost being weaponised. You need populations who are resilient to information attacks.”
The primary focus, understandably, is on young people. Having embedded media literacy in the curriculum in 2014, the Finnish government is now reaping the rewards, with its nation ranked highest in a European index of resistance to misinformation.
“If we can reach teenagers before they get to voting age, and teach them how to think critically, then we don't have to rely so much on trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” says Mahadevan. That unenviable latter task is generally undertaken by fact-checking organisations such as Snopes in the US and Fatabyyano in Jordan, but according to Mahadevan, many are too overwhelmed and understaffed to make the necessary impact.
While the US government is using graphic novels to reach out to young people, research has also been done at the Centre for Cybersecurity at New York University Abu Dhabi into the use of games. Fakey, a game which asks players to rate pieces of online news for accuracy, was found to be “effective in priming players to be suspicious of articles from questionable sources”. But while players became better at recognising partisan language and excessively emotional headlines, the design of the social media platform itself can be unhelpful, according to one of the researchers, Nicholas Micallef.
“If social metrics indicate that an article has high levels of engagement, people are more likely to like or share it, and they become more vulnerable to the influence of misinformation,” he says. In other words, if a lot of people share it, we can end up believing it.
There’s little incentive for profit-driven social media companies to tackle the problem, according to Mahadevan. “You can trace back a lot of the problems with disinformation to the rise of digital advertising,” he says. “The business model is eyeballs and engagement. The way to achieve that is content that can start fires and spread quickly.”
Pamment agrees. “Recently [social media platforms] have been telling us about the great work they've been doing, but it's clear that is not working. Misinformation is getting into everyone's feeds, and everybody knows someone who won't take the vaccine [because of it].”
Education is clearly the solution. But what if people don’t want to be taught? What if people susceptible to believing disinformation consider themselves to be critically appraising it, and think that the education itself is a kind of disinformation to be resisted? “In most democracies you have the right to be wrong,” says Pamment. “It’s not illegal to say things that are stupid. But if the result of that is real-world harms, then governments have to step in.”
With many countries slow to launch such initiatives, the Aspen report calls upon philanthropists to step in and offer funds to support media literacy. Mahadevan’s organisation, MediaWise, has enlisted the help of influencers and celebrities to get the message across. “We recently partnered with an Instagram influencer, Cydnee Black. She has an audience we could never reach, who never even think about fact-checking. Even if they're exposed to one or two videos, there is evidence that this can alter the way they behave online.”
The problem won’t be solved in the short term simply by flinging resources at it, however. For example, the Finnish model of embedding digital literacy in the curriculum isn’t guaranteed to work, according to Pamment. “The Finns historically have very strong trust in government,” he says. “I don't think we should assume that the path to societal resilience against disinformation will be the same everywhere. This is a generational issue, and a very long-term project. We have to start with kids, teach them from a very young age, keep that going, and hopefully have a society that's worth having trust in.”