What is now classified as disinformation can be traced at least as far back as the fourth century, when various religious groups engaged in ecumenical debates as they vied for unity and power in the early centuries of the Catholic Church. During the 16th century, religious sages led parishioners to believe monarchs were chosen by God to rule in the political and religious realms. And the 20th century was rife with propaganda spread by leaders of communist, fascist, and even sometimes democratic countries.
Today, lies are commonplace in politics and government and often spread and amplified on the internet by private actors. The security risks posed by widespread belief in conspiracy theories and other false or misleading information make it imperative that society find ways to counter mis- and disinformation.
But to date most government attempts to fight back against disinformation have not worked. A global cyberwatch across social media platforms is nearly impossible to institute successfully, given the number of platforms and a user base of people numbered in the billions. Media literacy and counter-propaganda campaigns run by civil society groups seem to offer the most promising alternatives in the fight against disinformation. Among the emerging success stories are groups fighting racial discrimination in the United States and a community of Lithuanian professionals from diverse industries who use AI-driven analytic tools to debunk internet lies.
The racial divide. The US State Department refers to the battle against disinformation as a responsibility to be shared by government leaders and private citizens. President Joe Biden spoke about this battle in his inaugural address: “There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.” One of the top five Russian disinformation narratives noted in a State Department fact sheet is the looming “collapse of Western civilization,” a narrative often furthered when disinformation is targeted to stir up racial tension that fosters domestic discord.
Win Black is an organization that was very active in 2020 and 2021 fighting mis- and disinformation in Black communities. Win Black says social media platforms are not doing enough to take down disinformation posts that aim to foster race-related strife. During 2020 and 2021, the organization’s team combed through media content every day to strategically search for disinformation in places where it routinely starts. The group’s methodology included corrective messages shared with Black communities on the internet. At its core, Win Black’s fight against disinformation involved creating attractive but truthful internet content that could “compete with all of the bad information that’s out there.”
Bots—that is, automated social media accounts—regularly bait people into arguments that drive attention to disinformation content. Among many social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook are known for accounts operated by trolls or bots that engage in an argument for extended periods of time, stirring confusion and spreading false information. Such activity was a significant part of Russia’s efforts to depress the Black vote in the 2020 US presidential election. The National Black Cultural Information Trust, the NAACP, and other groups are fighting back against such disinformation by identifying local influencers whose messages can be trusted. When the bots and trolls start the arguments, local influencers step in with a message of truth and other types of challenges that unveil the reality that people have been arguing with a bot.
To keep the fight against racial disinformation going strong, the Media Democracy Fund helped start the Disinfo Defense League, a group of over 200 grassroots organizations that fight disinformation in Black communities. Meanwhile, some Blacks are organizing to fight disinformation individually. Two Blacks with no tech or security background have created a clever hashtag that plays on Black culture by recognizing the language of non-Black social media users who pretend to be Black and push disinformation. The approach hails from the fact that it is hard to fake African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics. The duo searches for Twitter accounts owned by “Blacks” who are actually white supremacists spreading disinformation. When the accounts are discovered, the two use the hashtag #yourslipisshowing to indicate that something meant to be concealed is on full display. Twitter has picked up on this tactic and has been able to shut down some of the fake accounts pushing disinformation.
Media literacy is a big part of knowing when “you are being played,” and some Black celebrities are using their status to promote media literacy in the Black community. In 2020, Kevin Hart, Patrick Mahomes, and LeBron James teamed up to create More Than a Vote, a campaign on Twitter to combat dis- and misinformation about voting, and to fight efforts to discourage voters from attempting to vote.
Black scholars are getting involved to counter disinformation through webinars, workshops, and town hall forums. In 2021, a critical-thinking project at the University of Southern California, the Critical Media Project, tested the effectiveness of an educational intervention to improve media literacy as a form of social justice. The project’s methods to fight disinformation were successful in empowering youth with the tools necessary to challenge systems of disinformation. A similar project was undertaken by a collective academic team that promotes the importance of “digital citizenship.”
A counter-disinformation collective. Meanwhile, in Europe, Debunk EU has made headway against distortion of the truth, using what the group describes as a combination of “‘geeks’ + ‘elves’ + journalists” to counter disinformation and undermine divisive social media posts. This nonprofit hails from Lithuania and is funded by Delfi, the largest online news publisher in the Baltics, and the Digital News Initiative, a European organization created by Google to support high-quality journalism via technological innovation.
The Lithuanian elves—actually, a community of professionals with backgrounds in foreign affairs, security, IT, and related fields—are using analytic tools fueled by artificial intelligence to debunk lies on the net, to calm rational and irrational fears, to reinforce discredited truths, and to emphasize data safety that reduces bribes related to public embarrassment. Although their efforts are mainly focused on national-level issues, they also fight race-related disinformation that breeds civil unrest in the United States.
In July 2022, Debunk EU revealed disinformation narratives promoted by the Kremlin that aimed to sway public opinion about Ukrainian refugees and Kyiv’s efforts to join the European Union. The narratives were found in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from June 26 to July 4 in state-aligned media and social media. Debunk EU tracked engagement with the posts, including shares and likes. Disinformation articles and posts of this nature received from 154 to 7,122 interactions. “Geeks” from 10 think tanks monitored the propaganda and made efforts to debunk it.
Debunk EU also offers a “crash course” that aims to teach the public how to recognize mis- and disinformation. The eight-hour digital course explains how disinformation can be recognized in three steps. The course includes quizzes geared for students, diplomats, journalists, and average citizens to help them increase their ability to recognize false information being promoted as true.
Digital citizens’ communities, local advocacy groups, geeks-elves-and-journalists, and other like-minded organizations are demonstrating the way forward to effectively fight disinformation. Government policies that aim to counter false internet narratives are needed as well, but the private-sector efforts underway are a breath of fresh air—and a guide to more comprehensive programs to fight against disinformation.