The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that online misinformation is one of the most pressing problems facing our societies. While the "infodemic" - as the World Health Organisation called it - that we have experienced over the last year and a half has been focused on medical issues, false or misleading content can affect many other issues of concern to civil society organisations.
In this post we will look at some strategies that these organisations can adopt in order to prepare for the impact of a possible disinformation campaign affecting their particular interests. While none of these approaches can guarantee that disinformation will not thrive by affecting the organisations' agenda and programmes, thinking about them and putting them into action can provide elements to address this problem.
Perhaps the most obvious approach is that of fact-checking, a type of journalism that seeks to verify the veracity or falsity of viral content on social media or claims made by politicians or relevant people in the public debate. Although it is most commonly carried out by journalists and the media, it is also possible for civil society organisations to investigate the veracity of a claim and publish the result.
This is the case, for example, of Tech4Peace, an NGO based in Canada and Iraq that focuses on digital security. On its website, this organisation checks the claims made on Iraqi social media and websites.
According to Countering Disinformation, a guide to combating disinformation by the Consortium for Electoral and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) and USAID, "civil society groups are uniquely placed to implement [fact-checking] programmes for two interrelated reasons: first, they can act as relatively objective and unbiased sources (...) Second, civil society organisations tend to have fewer constraints, especially compared to journalists, on both methods and solutions.
These two points apply in the Tech4Peace example. First, while they have a clear objective ("to reduce violence and terrorism by reporting on pages and social media profiles that disseminate disinformation or propaganda promoting violence or terrorism"), this can be presented as an unbiased interest (the purpose is to stop violence, wherever it comes from). Second, the organisation operates through hundreds of volunteers, so its structure can be adapted to the needs of reporters.
However, this may not be the case for all civil society organisations. If an organisation has a very clear position on a public debate on which there is not yet general consensus (even if it has the data and evidence to support it), its checks may simply be dismissed by its opponents as biased.
In any case, organisations can participate in the fact-checking process, e.g. by serving as sources for fact-checking media. If the information provided by organisations is verified and put in context by a reliable source, it is more likely to be convincing for their audience.
Fact-checking has its limitations. There will always be some people who are unwilling to change their opinion on an issue, especially if it is an issue around which they base their identity. There will also be people who will not trust organisations that tell them what the truth is. That is why it is important to have other approaches to the problem of misinformation.
One such approach is digital literacy: the process of teaching internet users how information and misinformation works on the internet and what techniques they can use to navigate the ecosystem and not share content with problematic information.
Many of these initiatives are led by civil society organisations, sometimes in alliance with fact-checking media, or with the authorities responsible for education. This is the case, for example, of the Canadian organisation CIVIX, which in 2019 carried out the Voto Estudiantil project to teach children and adolescents from several schools in Colombia to understand the internet and to identify whether a digital source is reliable, in order to prepare them for the misinformation that would arise during that year's local elections. For this project, CIVIX partnered with several education secretariats in Colombian cities, as well as with the fact-checking media Colombiacheck.
This case was successful because CIVIX is an organisation that had credibility in pedagogical projects (it had already carried out a similar programme in Canada) and could present itself in Colombia as a neutral, non-partisan entity.
Social media platforms are where much of the disinformation is spread. For this reason, several of them have initiated programmes that limit or block the reach of certain content to prevent the spread of disinformation. But some organisations may feel that these programmes are insufficient.
Through their work, civil society organisations can contribute critical data to this debate to show how both platform misinformation and a poorly designed programme to combat false content on platforms can negatively affect vulnerable populations. Civil society organisations can also provide research to support certain types of interventions and pressure platforms to adopt them.
However, not all organisations are in a position to engage in this activism. In many cases, the organisations are funded by the platforms and have a conflict of interest. In others, the organisations are too small and platforms will not pay much attention to them.
Some solutions to this have emerged, such as coalitions of organisations coming together to carry more weight and thus create change. This is the case of the Design 4 Democracy Coalition, "a coordinating mechanism between democratic groups and human rights organisations from around the world working at the forefront of technology and democratic issues".
Finally, civil society organisations should also be prepared to defend themselves against a coordinated disinformation attack. Such an attack can cause reputational and even financial damage, so knowing how to react to them is crucial.
According to Countering Disinformation, organisations should be prepared on three fronts:
The NGO Interaction has a guide for civil society organisations on how to prepare on these fronts. And Linterna Verde also has several programmes to help organisations know how to respond to these attacks.
Disinformation is a reality of the digital media ecosystem in which we do much of our work, so the sensible thing to do is to combat it and be prepared in case it knocks on our door.
This post was written with the support of NED.