In a bid to continue to tackle misinformation globally, non-profit organisation First Draft has been working in the US and Brazil over the last six months, monitoring different types of information disorder.
Its research has shown that the current information threat online is not false content, but rather misleading posts and comments designed to deepen existing divisions in society.
“Increasingly, the types of content that we’re seeing are actually genuine, but misleading. It might be genuine imagery, but recycled,” said Claire Wardle, who leads First Draft, speaking at the Google DNI Innovation Forum last week (7 Dec).
“What we do with that as a society is the challenge - we haven’t got time to wait.”
The problem, Wardle explained, is that there is no time for a longitudinal study looking at the effects of constant misleading content being fed into society.
“The most effective disinformation is that which taps into our emotional responses,” she said, noting that it is designed to reinforce ‘your’ position and denigrate the other side.
This could be through dog-whistles, logical fallacies or false equivalence.
“Lots of the conversations about information disorder ignore the big societal shifts that have happened in the past decade.”
For example, she noted the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, the collapse of the welfare state, the rise of the automation where people worry for their jobs, and global migration trends.
“Put all of that underneath the layer of information disorder, and you can see why we have problems.”
So how do journalists work within this environment?
Wardle argued that it is crucial that journalists understand how they fit into this context of disinformation, and understanding where disinformation starts.
She explained it often originates in anonymous spaces on the web, moving to semi-closed networks, then to conspiracy communities, then to social media, before sometimes making it to mainstream media.
Here are her key learnings for tackling the disinformation ecosystem:
1. Be prepared
“Train your newsroom in disinformation tactics and techniques, learning how to work in this environment,” she said, noting it is not enough to just know how to verify an image.
“Is your newsroom prepared to wade into spaces? Would it understand how to operate a virtual private network, and does it have an ethical policy to know whether you can be in anonymous spaces, and do journalists understand how vulnerable they are?”
2. Don’t act as a stenographer
“We see a real issue with outlets repeating the lies in Facebook headlines and tweets, nobody reads the 800 word fact-check – they just see the lie repeated by multiple outlets,” she said.
“We really have to get better at understanding how to do journalism in the age of disinformation.
3. Be responsible
“Don’t give disinformation additional oxygen – there is a responsibility about how we do journalism,” she said.
Reporting on disinformation and doing ‘pointing journalism’ is not good enough, instead, journalists must ‘amplify collectively to give weight to the debunks that we are doing.”
4. Understand the implications of a networked audience
Wardle explained that if you published something 20 years ago, it would get watched by a few people, who would talk about it amongst themselves. Now, they are going online, tweeting about it and sharing it with followers and friends.
“We have to understand that there is a way for conspiracy theorists to be connected immediately.
"Do more reporting that helps explain the issues that are often subjects of disinformation campaigns,” she said, noting that journalists should be brainstorming now in advance of the EU Parliamentary elections.
She explained that election integrity, racial and ethic divisions and migration are hot topics that disinformation can form around, so think about how your news organisation help audiences to stay in the know.
"It is not the robots I’m scared about anymore. I’m more concerned about us as human beings, being made more decisive or angry, and being more prepared to attack each other than the robots."
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