Inaccuracy or intentional manipulation: the circulation of false information has become one of the leading problems we are facing in the digital environment. Now watchdogs are fighting back with a range of solutions.
Where and how to look for solutions: two scenarios
There is no easy one-size-fits-all solution for fighting back disinformation and misinformation, but a panoply of different hypotheses and experiences. There are in fact two scenarios: one is based on the idea that the proliferation of fake information depends on people’s inability to distinguish between what is true and what is false. According to this approach, the solution lies in critical thinking. However, concentrating exclusively on generating distrust might actually prove counterproductive: people might also end up distrusting even those public and scientific institutions that provide correct information.
The debunking strategy often implies the use of checklists, tools and protocols to separate the true from the false. This approach is not necessarily going to solve the problem, according to Sam Wineburg, from the Stanford History Education Group. Wineburg was one of the speakers at the Global Media Literacy Summit, held in London on September 5th at Google UK headquarters, where representatives of universities, research centers, organizations, NGOs and media shared a common interest and intention to collaborate in order to reestablish a healthy informative environment.
He was adamant: ‘We cannot use a 20th century solution to tackle a 21st century problem,’ he said. ‘When we observe students checking the reliability of a certain website by following a vertical reading approach (i.e. working through a checklist and looking at the URL, the graphics, the ‘about us’ tab, the domain, the overall look, and so on) they are not able to ask the right questions. Who is behind this website, who is financing it, for instance’.
Wineburg and his colleagues decided to look at how accomplished expert fact checkers approach their task. Their research shows that fact checkers employ lateral thinking as their main tool: when verifying a website, for instance, they go further than simply analysing its structure and components by looking for different sources and trying to understand who is behind it. ‘Needless to say,’ adds Wineburg, ‘the people who have disinformation as their aim are perfectly aware of how to trick those who rely on checklists and simple indicators’.
Not placing the burden of responsibility on the consumer of information but instead making the mechanisms behind the production of information clear and transparent is also the approach that First Draft applies when looking at the role of the media.
Some of the tactics are so sophisticated and clever, if we think of creating websites or technologies such as deep fakes, for example, that the contents produced using these methods are deliberately designed to fool everyone.
How we are fighting back
There is currently a plethora of projects trying to respond to the problem.
Many of them focus on schools and students. This is not only because initiatives within the framework of the education system have a greater impact, but also because the younger generations, albeit considered ‘digital natives’, are among those most at risk. They live in the digital environment without fully understanding its logic, architecture or power structures.
MediaWise at Poynter, for instance, aims to teach American teenagers how to become media and digitally savvy through a new curriculum for students and teachers. Developing a curriculum for the classrooms is also the key point of NewsWise in the UK, which focuses on training both teachers and students.
Lie Detectors, an award-winning European project, supports collaborative activities in classrooms involving teachers and journalists in a joint effort to work with students. Their newly published report entitled ‘Tackling Disinformation Face to Face: Our Journalists’ Findings from the Classroom’ provides data from classroom visits where 8 500 students, 260 teachers and 120 journalists worked and held discussions together in 33 cities in Belgium, Germany and Austria.
In Italy, where polarisation goes hand in hand with distrust of the media and institutions, Quattrociocchi recently carried out an experiment in collaboration with Facebook using a participatory format. Students worked together on the production of content, starting from a meme and finishing with communication strategies related to controversial news stories.
The role of the media
Journalists and media are no longer the sole players when it comes to producing and circulating information. This is a shift that newsrooms and legacy media still find hard to come to terms with. However, they are still key actors and therefore need to understand the change and develop the capacity to assess the risks.
Once again, however, it is not only a matter of tools. The change goes deeper than that. ‘I do think the shift now is much more about behaviour than it is about content. Previously we were really focusing on how to uncover what’s true and what’s not true; there was a very literal approach to this. Now more than ever before we’re seeing a type of content permeated with negative sentiment that’s specifically created to cause division. But sometimes you actually can’t categorically say it is false’.
The phenomenon is more complex and relates, for example, to how information is used in different contexts, as we have recently witnessed in relation to the migration crisis or climate change. Data is taken out of context, and framed in a way that is misleading. This, once again, has more to do with the dynamics of how and why the information is produced and circulated, rather than being reducible to a simple matter of whether it is true or false.
This is a conclusion shared by many experts in the media literacy field. The solution is neither easy nor readily available, but lies in collaboration and research. Research is pivotal, because data, framework and comparative analysis are the only ways to devise common definitions, targets, procedures and methods that can result in some impact and contribute to detoxifying the information environment, thereby leading to a healthy digital life for all citizens.