trust plaque
Credit: By Terry Johnston on  Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Over the past year, fact-checking and the battle against mis- and disinformation online has been at the centre of discussions in the media industry and beyond, with many collaborative initiatives springing up as media outlets and platforms work together to find ways to minimise the impact of 'fake news'.

At MisinfoCon in London on Wednesday, 25 October, around 80 people from different countries came together to debate the challenges and opportunities of fighting misinformation online, from getting to grips with the numbers behind the problem, to media literacy and understanding the role of visuals and memes.

If part of your job is verifying information, creating training programmes or simply managing social media accounts in general, here are three questions that came up at MisinfoCon to keep in mind when faced with:

Do debunks help or harm?

Fact-checking and publishing debunks is a clear way to reach audiences with the correct information after they may have been flooded with fake or manipulative posts. But how effective is your debunk, and does the language you use emphasise the correct fact or simply repeat the fake one?

"Think about the implications of how we are writing on these topics," said Claire Wardle, research fellow at Shorenstein Centre leading First Draft News. She added that "debunks are a form of engagement", and those fact-checking and publishing their results online could be "giving oxygen to rumours that do not need oxygen."

"Can silence be the best response to mis- and dis-information?" asks an article published on First Draft News outlining the ten questions journalists covering misinformation should ask themselves.

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How do you avoid creating cynics?

Media and news literacy programmes have been highlighted as a possible solution to address the lack of trust in media as well as the proliferation of attractive, well-packaged fake stories.

But rebuilding – or in some cases, beginning to build – trust in media outlets is a complicated question that needs to be addressed in the proper historical context for the specific area in which a media literacy effort operates.

"Every major institution in our lives that we thought we could trust more than not has at some point done something to betray that trust. Every single one, including reputable news organisations, including education. But we have to trust something," said Dan Gillmor, who teaches digital media literacy and promoting entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Gillmor is also director and co-founder of News Co/Lab, a collaborative lab aiming to research and develop new approaches to news literacy.

"We don't want cynics", added Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Newseum. She explained that "fake news" in the hook to get people interested in finding out more about misinformation and how the media works, despite it not being the preferred term of those who work to research, understand and debunk it.

Could we create a financial incentive for media literacy?

The financial argument for the growth in websites publishing and sharing fake news stories on social media is easy to understand. Few readers would not have heard about the Macedonian teenagers running a network of news sites duping Trump supporters with fake stories – teenagers motivated by the economic aspect and the allure of the pay-per-click advertising dollars.

But there is no such argument for starting a news literacy programme, and a large number of the existing initiatives are non-profits. In order to scale such projects, a capitalistic incentive needs to be found, some delegates have pointed out.

Two other points raised by delegates discussing media literacy and its challenges and impact have been finding ways to reach those who do not care if something they have shared online is true or fake, and understanding the role of fake accounts in the digital ecosystem, and the scale of the problem.

Catch up the discussion by reading through the #MisinfoCon hashtag. will also be at MozFest in London this weekend, so if you plan to attend and have recommendations of innovative journalism projects, tools, apps and resources for others in the industry, contact our international editor Catalina Albeanu.

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