The preceding discussion illustrates a formidable set of media, information, and political problems. With the tacit complicity of citizens and allies, governments and rogue actors are responsible for large-scale disinformation campaigns in a complex web of domestic politics and geopolitical competition. Misinformed citizens consume and distribute false information and are generally unaware of their ignorance. Populism disfigures democracy. It tends to ignore speech rights, flout norms of civility and tolerance, and persecute and suppress critics. It represents and legitimises various forms of hate speech. Deep, epistemic fractures make it difficult, if not impossible, for the existence of public agreement over ways to determine veracity and truth. All together, the combination of these problems results in multi-faceted threats to public life and communicative spaces.
One can reasonably argue that these problems are as old as public communication and politics. Yet now they present novel and complex forms in chaotic and dynamic media and information ecologies. They are contrary to optimum communicative conditions in multicultural democracies: namely, facticity, quality information, truth-telling, tolerance, difference, consensus, understanding, empathy, inclusion, and dialogue.
As communication and media scholars, we should not just be concerned with understanding the scope and the causes of the problems. We also need to identify and assess effective actions to respond to the challenges. The complexities of this scenario present important variations of solutions by country and region. Not all societies may be similarly susceptible to dis/misinformation or correspondingly equipped to respond.
The causes of dis/misinformation are located in three levels: individual, group, and systemic/ structural, and societies require multipronged actions to combat these threats (Koulolias, Jonathan, Fernandez, & Sotirchos 2018).
One set of responses focuses on equipping individuals and groups with critical media/news literacy skills to assist them in navigating the current information landscape. In this case the focus is on citizens rather than on the sources of disinformation and misinformation. The premise is that citizens should be aware and smart when they consume and share information. Today, more than ever, a citizen requires the skills to constantly hone their communication and informational competencies.
The challenges for implementing successful media literacies are vast. It is difficult to promote and to implement media/news literacy programmes at scale because of the logistical and funding challenges. Media systems heavily tilted in favour of commercial interests are antithetical to actions aimed at cultivating critical learning skills. Systems with strong public service media grounded in truly public ideals are seemingly better equipped to confront the challenges of dis/ misinformation.
Changing the way publics interact with information entails addressing significant behavioural and social obstacles, as the mixed record of interventions suggest (Tully, Vraga, & Bode 2020). Well-known cognitive processes, such as motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective exposure/perception, as well as strong, affective identities, present significant demands. ‘Incorrect’ opinions and vulnerability to misinformation are often grounded in partisan and ideological identities. Therefore, offering counter-information may be insufficient to reduce hateful attitudes and behaviours, especially when confronting hard beliefs and strong resistance. Dis/misinformation is not simply a problem of groups who happen to hold incorrect knowledge due to poor media literacy skills, nor is it the failure of news providers to separate the wheat of information from the chaff of disinformation. Toxic identity politics that embrace dogmatic thinking, loyalty to leaders, and hate are significant obstacles.
Another set of responses focuses on systemic issues. Unsurprisingly, here the challenges are significant as well.
One type of intervention spotlights improving information ecologies by adding quality information. Notably, scores of programmes concentrate on producing fact-based information to debunk lies and to counter deception campaigns. Just as rogue actors aim to flood digital media with mis/disinformation to sow confusion, journalism, non-government organisations, scientific organisations, think tanks, and university centres try to infuse the public sphere with demonstrable, evidence-based facts to achieve the opposite. What brings these initiatives together is the hope that multiplying ‘healthy’ information options may arm societies with more resources and contribute to turning the tide of dis/misinformation.
The challenges are multi-fold, involving taking fact-checking actions to scale, targeting publics who are particularly vulnerable to falsehoods and harder to reach, avoiding boomerang effects, and providing timely corrections to torrents of dis/misinformation. Fact-checking organisations rarely occupy towering positions in disjointed and multi-layered communication infrastructures. Gone are the days of firm pyramidal, hierarchical communication with a limited number of journalistic/media, informational, and scientific institutions atop. Furthermore, uneven and divided public trust in these media institutions across countries affect their position and credibility.
A different set of responses target social media and other digital corporations on the basis that they are major culprits in the current plight. Governments and civic organisations insist that those companies should be held accountable to the public for polluting the public sphere with toxic content. The call to arms comprises demands for transparency, consistent enforcement of their own guidelines, curbs on harmful content in their platforms, and legal action. Amid public pressure and outcry and advocacy campaigns, corporate responses to recurrent public relations crises are ad hoc, halfhearted, scattered, uneven, self-interested, and opaque. For example, Facebook and Twitter, in response to the flood of coronavirus disinformation on their platforms, are constantly updating their policies regarding conspiracy theories and fake news. They do this by flagging up disinformation using labels or warnings to highlight disputed, unverified, or misleading posts and tweets. As Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, quoted on NBC News, commented, ‘They trumpet these transparency initiatives, but they’re marking their own homework’ (Zadrozny 2020).
The decision to prioritise content by ‘trustworthy’ legacy news organisations or to deplatform postings and actors hardly amounts to a coherent set of policies in the public interest. None of these actions are sufficient or convincing.
Certainly, policy and regulatory tools remain important to address the symptoms and the deep-seated causes of dis/misinformation. Options are wide ranging. Eliminating or making access to misinformation difficult may be effective, inadequate, or problematic, depending on the various legal traditions and ethical issues in each country and whether they are public or private spaces. Legislation to regulate and shut down ‘fake news’ raises a host of problems, especially in countries with a strong history and tradition of governments clamping down on dissident speech.
Finally, it is important to develop responses to political and media elites who foster and perpetuate dis/misinformation, hate speech, and other forms of dangerous communication. Priority actions and targets should be mindful of deep power asymmetries in disinformation structures and dynamics. Not all disinformation institutions and agents carry similar responsibility in disseminating dis/misinformation at scale. Political elites and media corporations and funders wield significantly more power than scattered, ordinary citizens who consume and share falsehoods. Unfortunately, media and communication scholarship pays insufficient attention to effective responses to populism. Boycotting media companies that traffic in lies and deception and discouraging the use of digital platforms teeming with mis/disinformation are important steps, but they are hardly sufficient to break vicious cycles of disinformation and populist politics.
The belief there are easy-to-implement, one-shot, off-the-shelves solutions should be avoided. As the problems are complex, there is no single ‘magic bullet’. Some responses to disinformation show promise. However, none has proved to be stunningly effective to curb misinformation in a whack-a-mole scenario in which lies and deception constantly pop up.
Responses should be part of systematic, evidence-driven, flexible, and localised approaches. Reactive and haphazard interventions are unlikely to tackle fundamental problems or to produce sustainable results. Successful responses at individual, group, and systemic levels may provide valuable insights for future action. Comparative analysis can help work out ways to reach out to and engage with various populations in the battle against disinformation, misinformation, and hate. Just as exposure to dis/misinformation takes place in different circumstances, attitudes and beliefs about politics, health, education, climate, and other issues vary too. Also, responses should take context into consideration, whether it is domestic politics, legal traditions, media systems, social trends, or combinations thereof. What may be viable and effective in certain settings does not necessarily apply elsewhere.
Ultimately, it is necessary to recognise that the challenges are daunting. If we are living in a time of‘disrupted public spheres’ (Bennett & Pfetsch 2018), then where should societies focus attention and resources? How can societies reconstruct their information ecologies to support democracy and public life? Amid fractured publics and polarisation, how are shared actions feasible? Answers to these questions are necessary to re-imagine common paths to implement successful actions.
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