Responses to mis/disinformation: Practitioner experiences and approaches in low income settings
This chapter is informed by the experience and response to mis and disinformation by BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international media support charity. It draws on the work and analysis of numerous colleagues and country offices. BBC Media Action works in 26 mostly low-income and fragile countries, and this experience heavily informs this chapter. The chapter is not intended to reflect the perspective of the BBC itself, although it does incorporate some of the lessons and experiences of the wider BBC.
In this chapter I summarise some of the strategies and approaches that a media support organisation is using to combat mis- and disinformation. The diversity of approaches and contexts that are described makes it difficult to provide a single theoretical framework or reference a particular body of literature as these are now vast. Programmes draw on particular theoretical reference points and literature according to context and objective.
The approaches outlined here are highly specific to different political, social, and economic contexts, but populism is not necessarily a key factor in shaping the strategies and approaches outlined here. Populism is often a product of particular information and communication environments of the type that are now the norm. If information and communication environments privilege misinformation and disinformation, diminish access to trustworthy information, enable patterns of communication that drive societal fragmentation and polarisation, and create a hostile environment for dialogue and debate across societal divides, we argue that they provide fertile ground for populism and authoritarianism to gain ground. BBC Media Action believes that improving the character and quality of the information and communication environment — privileging the availability of and access to trustworthy information, increasing societal capacity for debate and dialogue across societal divides, enabling a diversity of voices to be heard — makes societies more resilient to (although certainly not immune to) populism as well as authoritarianism. The evidence for the practical efficacy for this approach is fragmented, not only from our own experience but more broadly, and towards the end of this chapter, we suggest better ways through which learning and evidence can draw on practitioner experience. However, it should be said at the outset that our analysis tends to focus on populism less as a driver than as a consequence of dysfunctional information and communication environments.
We use the following definitions.
Misinformation is untrue information spread by a source who believes it to be true.
Disinformation is untrue information spread by a source who knows it is untrue (i.e. it is a deliberate lie).
Our projects generally seek to identify the principal problem to be addressed and design accordingly, but it is rare that they tackle only one of these challenges. In other words they take a blended approach to tackling both misinformation and disinformation.
Fake news is understood by most people to mean anything that is not true, covering all types of mis/disinformation. Academic papers and institutions such as the European Commission reject the use of the phrase ‘fake news’, although the BBC does continue to use the phrase principally because it is one which their audiences use and recognise (EU 2018). BBC Media Action tends to avoid this term unless it remains the most effective way of engaging people.
We also recognise that the terms misinformation and disinformation are used in civic discourse interchangeably. It is sometimes helpful to think of the phenomena as the spread of untrue information in a world where trust in reliable sources is in decline, where there are solutions on the demand side (e.g. building trust and media literacy) and the supply side (e.g. reducing the amount of untrue information being spread).
Our projects may seek to address two different perceived problems: the organised sharing of disinformation and the organic spread of misinformation.
Principles and foundations
In the following sections, we outline some of the strategies and approaches that BBC Media Action is taking to respond to misinformation and disinformation, but at the outset, some of the principles and foundational components that inform our approach should be spelled out.
Research and context
There are few if any template approaches to tackling misinformation and disinformation. Effective strategies need to be rooted in thorough research and understanding of context. This means:
- • Audience research focused on understanding, for example, how people access information, how they communicate, who they trust, and which information sources they most value. Patterns of access will look very different within countries as well as between them. For example, in Myanmar, where BBC Media Action has devised a major programme combatting rumour and misinformation, almost one-third of the population use Facebook daily, but almost half never use it, according to our research.1 Those who do use it tend not to trust it, with just 44 percent of people saying they trust what they access on social media. Effective strategies cannot be devised unless they are rooted in this kind of detailed, contextual knowledge. Research approaches are also tailored to context ranging from traditional nationally representative surveys and qualitative research to artificial intelligence techniques focused on discourse analysis, influencer maps, audience segmentation, and other approaches.
- • Political economy analysis and media mapping focused on understanding ownership and power structures in the media and communication space; who is generating information content with what purpose; the conditions and potential for public interest media to survive and thrive; and the influence over media of government, oligarchs, and political actors, as well as the incentives and objectives of organised efforts to subvert or confuse the information and communication space.
- • Real-time learning of what works. There are few tried and trusted solutions to tackling misinformation and disinformation, and those solutions that are proving effective now in one context are unlikely to do so at another time in another. Learning within organisations and across organisations is vital in developing an effective knowledge based of what works and what does not. So, too, are investing in and respecting practitioner research. While there is substantial research informing policy responses, there are currently quite poorly developed learning systems capable of sharing insights between those organisations designing and implementing strategies to address these challenges (further analysis of this issue is focused on later in this chapter).
Theories of change
Developing project-specific theories of change is vital to ensuring complete clarity of what change is expected to come about and understanding the logic of how and why that intervention is likely to achieve the change required. At its most basic, for example, it encourages assessment and challenge of why logical responses (such as the provision of factual information) are expected to provide an effective response to the often emotionally driven behavioural drivers of misinformation.
A mix of responses and a multidisciplinary approach
Misinformation is complex and multi-faceted, and effective responses are likely to involve a mix of strategies. Some of these are outlined later in this chapter. Misinformation is organic, generated virally, amplified by a multiplicity of actors and forces, and rooted in the social reality of human nature. No one strategy is likely to be effective in this context; a range of responses is required, and a high degree of collaboration between different organisations designing and implementing those responses is likely to be required.
BBC Media Action has strong skills and networks in the field of working with media and journalism, in research, in editorial and digital capacities, and in a long history of working in partnership to shift social and behavioural norms. A truly multidisciplinary response requires many more skills than this, especially from the behavioural sciences, data analytics, and political economy, among other areas. Similarly, effective research into impact assessment is likely to draw on similar approaches.
Informed by BBC values
Our approach is heavily informed by BBC values.2 These are particularly:
- • Public service, placing the public interest above all others, and putting audiences or people at the heart of any strategy.
- • Universality, with a particular focus on engaging those who cannot afford to pay for accurate information as well as encouraging fact-based dialogue across divides in society.
- • Due impartiality, with a focus on improving access to factual information as well as exposure to a diversity of perspectives, whilst not amplifying perspectives which are factually untrue or not supported by science?
- • Trust and ensuring that all activities work towards the creation of more trusted information and communication environments and ensuring that information provision, platforms for public debate, and other forms of citizen engagement are underpinned by fact.
- • Putting people at the heart of what we do. Our research and programming are focused on understanding, engaging, and listening to people, and we argue that media support strategies are unlikely to succeed unless they are rooted in meeting the information and communication needs of people. In supporting media we recognise that the principal challenge is in finding systems capable of supporting journalists, programme makers, and other media professionals. Our investments in technological solutions and platforms are substantial and growing, but technology is not our first point of entry to addressing the challenges of media development. People and politics are.
- • Creativity and innovation. Kooted in the research process, BBC Media Action prizes highly the creativity of its approach. This means that the organisation is consistently experimenting with new approaches, platforms, technologies, and partnerships.
- • Scale. Our partnerships are designed to engage everyone in society, especially those who are economically and politically marginalised. Our programmes, implemented with our partners, are successful in engaging a representative cross section of society, both economically and demographically, with a particularly strong track record of engaging young audiences.
- • The BBC. At the heart of the twenty-first-century media development challenge is addressing the challenge of how to attract audiences across demographic, political, and other areas whilst also maintaining trust. The BBC is itself engaged in a major process of change and reinvigoration in order to ensure it remains the most trusted information source in the world and one capable of continuing to engage all sections of society, including young people. BBC Media Action also draws on this expertise and experience whilst designing its own programmes to meet these objectives.
Working at scale
Misinformation works at scale. Kesponses need to work at similar scale to be effective. However, scale is achieved by misinformation by appealing to emotional triggers that encourage people to share information even if they know it to be untrue. Sharing factual information cannot easily tap into the same emotional drivers and faces huge challenges in achieving the same virality as misinformation. Working at scale can therefore involve maximising the continuing capacity to reach broadcast and online audiences through our partnerships and networks; BBC Media Action seeks to work at large scale. Through its capacity building and broadcast partnerships, it reaches more than 100 million. The bulk of this is achieved through national and local partnerships with broadcast, digital, and other media institutions. Some of it is achieved through partnerships with the language services of the BBC World Service.
Investing in local/national media
BBC Media Action focuses heavily on working to support the capacity, capability, and sustainability of in-country media and other trustworthy institutions and entities. Tackling misinformation cannot be restricted to a set of tactical interventions or externally supported projects. It ultimately depends on the existence of an information ecosystem capable of making trustworthy, credible information accessible and appealing across all of society. These media development activities can range from a 15-year support programme to the most the trusted independent media institution in Iraq, called Al Mirbad, to support to networks of community broadcasters in countries as diverse as Nepal, Tanzania, and Zambia to working to establish public interest media systems in contexts as diverse as Libya, Myanmar, and Tunisia. Some of this work is rooted in a broad strategic effort to support public interest media systems which can be commercial, community, or publicly subsidised. Some of it is specifically contextualised to counter misinformation or disinformation. For example, we have worked with public service broadcasters in the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, which have large minority Russian-speaking populations but where the provision of independent information from within these states in the Russian language has been extremely limited.4 As a consequence, these populations largely access content produced from within Russia itself, including disinformation. Support has focused on working with national public service broadcasters and others to develop strategies better able to improve independent reporting and information provision (including entertainment) in the Russian language. In addition to this, substantial training, business mentoring, and other strategies are adopted to strengthen independent media in the countries in which BBC Media Action operates.
Local ownership and agency
A key principle of our work is that misinformation efforts should be locally owned and directed. Almost all implementing staff are drawn from the country concerned, and from research to programme development, strong efforts are made to ensure that programmatic strategies and content are driven by partners, people, and realities on the ground. It should be acknowledged, however, that this is not always easy. BBC Media Action receives almost no institutional funding, with 96 percent of its income tied to specific project deliverables. This means having a strong focus on programmatic impact, which requires careful consideration if it is to support, rather than override, local or national interests. Similar consideration is required to ensure adherence to BBC values, which stress a commitment to values such as due impartiality and constrain programmatic advocacy or campaigning.
Acute or chronic disinformation
Designing effective responses also needs to be rooted in understanding whether disinformation is acute or chronic. The distinction is most obviously seen in humanitarian, health, and similar responses. At a time of disaster — conflict, epidemic, or natural disaster, for example — rumour and disinformation can complicate the response. Combatting rumours of acute disinformation — for example, falsely claiming that a cure exists for a particular disease, which can lead to people dying by taking that treatment, and false claims that people or groups are carriers of a particular disease — are examples of acute disinformation. Disinformation around the efficacy of vaccines — part of a sustained narrative over time and multiple geographies and often linked to populist politics — is an example of chronic disinformation (more obviously disinformation than misinformation). Strategies to combat the latter needed to be rooted in the overall public health (or equivalent response) involving building the trust and legitimacy of any effort designed to encourage people to adopt (in this case) a particular behaviour, such as getting their children vaccinated.
Working in partnership and coordination
Huge numbers of organisations and agencies are increasingly tackling mis- and disinformation. Coordinating efforts with others is a key component of any effective response, although the architecture for doing this effectively in many settings is very weak. BBC Media Action works with a broad constellation of actors, depending on the media context. These range from national online platform partnerships to large-scale community radio networks, partnerships with commercial media networks (working with 200 broadcast partners across Nigeria, for example) to national commercial and public service or state broadcasters capable of engaging more than a third of a country’s adult population. Internationally, we work with academic, policy, and other media development partners both in generating learning of what works and does not work and applying and communicating that learning across the development and media development communities.