We are currently living in an era of unprecedented rampant misinformation (false information shared accidentally) and disinformation (false information shared deliberately).
While this is in part due to COVID-19 and the “infodemic” that it has inspired, recent history shows that this denigrating spread of false information is not new. Looking at events over the past several years, it is evident that the dissemination of false information has threatened not only the lives of individuals but also the integrity of national elections.
In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, coverage that relied on inaccurate information led to the initial false identification of innocent people as the perpetrators of the attack. Moreover, the role of disinformation in the United States’ 2016 election has long been documented. A 2018 report demonstrates that its impact may have been more significant than many originally thought.
COVID-19 is unique as it brings the spread of inaccurate information to people’s front doors. Even though civil society organizations play a prominent role in responding to the pandemic, they are not exempt from this destructive torrent of inaccurate information. Disinformation campaigns targeting CSOs can have a detrimental impact on those organizations and the many communities they serve. Unfortunately, targeting CSOs with disinformation campaigns is not new, but COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem.
Many Americans are aware of the issue of widespread false information. A 2019 study by the Institute for Public Relations in 2019 found that, on average, nearly two out of three Americans think the spread of misinformation and disinformation is a significant problem in the United States. In fact, Americans regard this issue as on par with that of gun violence and terrorism.
Although the majority of disinformation originates from a select number of organizations and individuals, technology and social media quickly and efficiently facilitate the spread of that false information into the networks of hundreds of thousands of people. A report from MIT indicates that social media encourages users to focus on factors other than accuracy.
For example, rather than thinking about the integrity of a headline on Facebook before sharing it, an individual may instead unwittingly be thinking about appealing to friends or followers, signaling group membership, or engaging with morally evocative content. Given this, despite a general awareness of the prevalence of false information, disinformation swiftly becomes misinformation as it spreads to the screens of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.
Disinformation poses a unique danger to civil society organizations. CSOs are reliant on public opinion, perception, and trust. This includes that of the communities they serve, their funders, and the various organizations and governments with which they partner. Disinformation campaigns seek to diminish the positive public opinion and trust that CSOs have cultivated over years of service and dedication. In turn, CSOs defend their reputation and indispensable work by fighting these campaigns, utilizing valuable time and resources that could otherwise be dedicated to assisting and advocating for vulnerable populations.
Disinformation campaigns have negatively affected civil society operations in Syria, Yemen, the United States, the Philippines, and countless other places. Not only have these campaigns resulted in a loss of time and resources, but they have also resulted in a loss of life.
Why would CSOs be the targets of disinformation campaigns? To begin with, CSOs play a unique role in bridging the gap between vulnerable populations and groups in power by advocating for and assisting these beleaguered communities. In doing so, they hold governments, organizations, and individuals accountable to a certain standard of treatment. By embracing this role of champion and advocate, CSOs can become entangled with those who wish harm upon the communities that CSOs strive to protect.
Although disinformation is clearly not a new phenomenon, the dangers it poses to civil society organizations have only increased.
What steps can CSOs take to combat this trend?
Acknowledging and being aware of this threat is of the utmost importance. From there, organizations can take a variety of actions, including enacting preventative measures, monitoring threats, and building resilience. CSOs also have access to the highest echelons of national and international lawmaking bodies and should use these connections to raise awareness about disinformation and the negative consequences it entails.
One cannot underestimate the power of civil society organizations coming together and standing in unity against disinformation campaigns. Regardless of faith, sector, or affiliation, CSOs have a responsibility to speak out against the intentional spread of false information. Together, civil society organizations have the power to end this battle before it even begins.