Journalist and Nobel Prize laureate Maria Ressa captured the essential nature of the threat that the rising tide of mis- and disinformation poses in her recent Nobel acceptance speech. To paraphrase:
Studies have shown that lies travel faster and further than facts on social media. Social media is—by design—dividing us and radicalizing us. Without facts, you can’t have truth; without truth, you can’t have trust; without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible for us to deal with the existential problems of our time like climate and coronavirus.
It is troubling to think that at precisely the moment when people must work together across cultural, ethnic, and national divides to push back common threats such as rising authoritarianism, climate change, and COVID-19, the very same tech tools that we extol for their ability to improve lives and make our work more effective and efficient are simultaneously the vehicle for a constant stream of inflammatory disinformation tailored to our individualized psychological profiles and devised to thwart social and political cohesion. If it sounds like I’m describing the situation in your country alone, keep in mind that social media adoption around the globe has nearly doubled in the past five years—from 2.31 billion users in 2016 to 4.33 billion in 2021—with the vast majority of that growth taking place in the developing and crisis-affected countries where international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) are most active.
The scale and the velocity of this mass, rapid evolution in human communication has left many international NGOs and CSOs flat-footed in their response to the real-world threat that disinformation attacks pose to the marginalized populations NGOs support, as well as to the lives of NGO staff, their hard-won reputations, and their ability to save lives and foster accountable institutions around the globe.
InterAction, the largest U.S.-based alliance of international NGOs, has been responding to this challenge alongside our Members through two core initiatives: the Together Project, which provides a space for faith-based NGOs to convene and advocate collectively against disinformation attacks; and the Disinformation Toolkit, which originally launched in 2018 and focused on helping NGOs respond when they are targeted with disinformation attacks. InterAction’s Disinformation Toolkit 2.0—which launched in November 2021—addresses the many ways that disinformation is threatening the work of NGOs. It addresses the following questions:
- How does disinformation impact the critical work of international NGOs across sectors? How are NGOs responding to this threat?
- Which currently existing tools and guides are most relevant to an organization’s work and unique risk profile? What does the evidence tell us about what’s working?
- How does disinformation impact the crisis-affected and marginalized populations that NGOs support around the globe? What do the experts recommend NGOs do in response?
- What are the key considerations and decision-points for NGOs that are themselves the subject of disinformation attacks? How can NGOs keep staff, reputations, and relationships of trust with communities safe from such attacks?
Below are five key takeaways:
- There are two sides to the global tech transformation. Disinformation is a problem right now because of the rapid, recent, and expansive growth of digital and mobile technologies, which market systems have brought to increasingly large segments of populations, leveraging the absence of digital rights frameworks. These same tools, which improve people’s lives and facilitate our work, also deliver a constant stream of mis- and disinformation to the same populations NGOs support around the globe, counteracting the work of NGOs to build accountable health systems, grow inclusive democracy, and mitigate harmful environmental and climate impacts and externalities.
- NGOs are targets, as are the communities we support. The assertion that the work of international NGOs is apolitical is more difficult to maintain in an information ecosystem characterized by rampant disinformation. As NGOs seek to stabilize life for affected populations, make health systems more effective and inclusive, improve public service delivery, and bolster human rights and accountable institutions, our work upends power dynamics and economic systems which benefit some at the expense of many. As a result, powerful interests and bad actors find NGOs and marginalized populations to be convenient targets for public disinformation attacks as a means to escape accountability for their actions and policy choices or shield their patrons from public scrutiny.
- There are no easy answers. Organizations across the sector are piloting approaches based on their risk profiles, and in some cases are evolving responses based on empirical research and evidence. That said, given the mass scale of tech and social media growth, the ease and low-cost with which such attacks are launched, and the difficulty in holding those responsible for such attacks accountable, most tactics are reactive rather than proactive. While there is no silver bullet, Disinformation Toolkit 2.0 gathers dozens of tools, guides, and resources designed by and for international civil society, democracy, humanitarian action, global health, climate mitigation, and economic growth-oriented organizations, based on their unique risk profiles.
- Democracy, rights, and governance & health practitioners are leading the way. Democracy-oriented organizations have been sounding the alarm on this challenge for some time and have developed useful approaches focused on civil society support, elections, media literacy, and support to marginalized groups. Global health organizations have taken the lead in designing and sharing rumor tracking tools going back to the Ebola crisis of 2014, and in addressing the current torrent of COVID-19 misinformation proliferating online. Disinformation Toolkit 2.0 puts these tools and approaches into context, links them directly for readers.
- Disinformation is a symptom of a larger problem. Users of mobile platforms generate data based on our online behaviors, which are then used by ad networks and platforms to sell us goods and perspectives that we are likely to buy or accept based on our demonstrated prior behaviors. A world in which platform users have more control over what data they provide and how it is used is a world in which hyper-targeted disinformation is a far less potent and prevalent tool of division. As such, a proactive response to disinformation attacks must revolve around data privacy and digital rights legislation, platform transparency and algorithmic accountability, and continuing to elevate the voices and rights of the most marginalized communities around the globe, all as the foundation for ensuring that humanity can enjoy the up-side of the spread of internet technology while mitigating the downside. While Disinformation Toolkit 2.0 provides tactics and tools for NGOs and CSOs confronting this challenge now, to join the conversation on long-term solutions to this and other digitally-enabled global challenges, I recommend joining the RightsCon community.
Disinformation challenges the ability of international NGOs and CSOs to help improve people’s lives around the globe. It generates distrust between people, herds us into filter bubbles where we’re easy to convert to cynicism and fear, and drives a stake into the heart of the marketplace of ideas at the heart of the democratic process. At a moment of rising authoritarianism, manufactured conflict, and global upheaval, it is the ability of good faith actors around the globe to work together in partnership, allyship, and solidarity that will eventually turn the tide. Until then, tactical responses such as those featured in Disinformation Toolkit 2.0 remain critical for organizations seeking to protect themselves, their staff, and the marginalized communities they support around the globe from the rising tide of disinformation and discord. To again echo Maria Ressa, we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can choose to fight for a better world.
Comments on this blog? Feedback on the Toolkit? Project idea? Want to hear more about InterAction’s work on disinformation or get your organization involved with upcoming conversations and learning events? Sign up for our Disinformation Response email list and we’ll get in touch!