Tackling disinformation

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(#11 of our Together-Ensemble series)

In this session, we discussed how the value-based war (between freedom and compliance) and the emotional wave, taking place now lead to a situation where all the most surprising conspiracy theories find support.

Among those whose stress becomes high and whose daily lives become overwhelming, some try to find a way to escape by joining political battles, which can give meaning and pleasure to their lives.

We saw this happening already with Brexit. Often, like in the session on populism, the most vulnerable among us, including ethnic minorities are the most hit.

Our intention with this episode is to avoid another bigger crisis by identifying strategies to tackle disinformation (i.e. when there is a malign intent) in an effective way.

Because it is seen as critical to avoid the propagation of the virus, protect the most vulnerable or later do even more harm because of the growing mistrust towards institutions in general.

This session of Together-Ensemble on 15 October 2020 allowed colleagues to identify strategies at individual and collective levels.

OPENING CONVERSATION

Christophe Leclercq is founder of the EURACTIV media network & of the Thin-Do-Tank Fondation EURACTIV. He went on a ‘Tour d’Europe’ for the project #Media4EU, then initiating Erasmus4media, now launched as Stars4media. Previously, he was EU Commission official with DG Competition (coordinator for Information Society). He studied political science (‘Sciences Po’ Paris), business administration (HEC Paris, also at NYU & Köln), and international relations (ULB, Brussels). He is a teacher at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Institut d’Etudes Européennes.

Prof JS Bamrah CBE is a senior consultant psychiatrist in Manchester (UK), Chairman of BAPIO (British association of physicians of indian origin), and past Council member of the BMA (British medical association) and Royal College of Psychiatrists. Until recently he was Medical Director at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust. JS is the inventor of the ‘Chartmyhealth’ app for smartphones which is currently undergoing development with NHS (National Health Service) partners. He has around 50 medical publications and nearly 100 in the tabloid press. He has appeared on several TV and radio shows including Sky news, ITV, BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 live, and on regional TV. In 2001, he was acknowledged by 10 Downing Street as one of 100 doctors for providing a ‘Distinguished service to the NHS’, in 2018 he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen for contributions to mental health, the NHS and diversity, and this week he has been recognised as one of 50 most influential BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) leaders in health in England.

Sandra Cavallo works at the European Commission’s communications department (DG COMM), heading the sector in charge of communication governance and strategic coordination. Her responsibilities include coordinating the European Commission’s external communication and awareness raising efforts about disinformation. She was previously a member of the EC’s Brexit task force and has worked for UNDP in Ukraine and Moldova, for the EU’s communicable diseases agency ECDC and for Italian public television Rai.

You can watch the webinar part here. Please note that this is internal “raw” material, not originally intended for external publication, but knowing the difficult context and associated challenges, we have decided to make it available to all. It is offered by the European Commission with a view to encourage everyone to take similar initiatives to encourage a benevolent direction. (video will be added soon).

MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE WORKSHOP

90 colleagues had registered for this session; of whom 50 attended the webinar live and 30 took part in the workshop on 15 October 2020.

  • Definition and origins of disinformation: Disinformation is “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”. It is linked with political or financial gain. Disinformation is nothing new – remember the pamphlets in the Middle Ages. It is a form of propaganda used throughout history to create, or bolster a politically motivated narrative, to suppress or oppress, or for final gain, whether it is the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s presidency. It is not misinformation, which can happen when not knowing the difference between causality and correlation for example. Or being so biased that the journalist doesn’t see any other side of the story. Disinformation has a malign intent. Disinformation is intentional, whilst misinformation is accidental.
  • Why tackling disinformation is critical: To render discussions and exchanges more objective, rational and allow a more effective exchange between participants; To have a clearer mind about what’s happening around us; To avoid the reinforcement of populist comments that undermine the work of EU; To bring hidden agendas in the open; Disinformation is like a virus, we have to slow down it; For a common understanding of what the facts are. To avoid quick spread of this kind of virus. To promote the truth. It is important to stop populism as it leads to authoritarianism. Ultimately, to prevent that the EU or member states do not descend into authoritarian regimes. To get the merit for the good work done for the European citizens. To get a more efficient communication cleaned from any « noise ». Because nowadays the information has a very broad reach and false information can have fatal consequences.To avoid that everyone leaves in his own world and is completely disconnected with others
  • Trap with the basic response: (time-consuming, expensive, weak results – most often counter-productive leading to a feeling of propaganda): We want a disinformation hub for every topics, not just COVID. In English and all of us can translate when needed. What we can do is to consult factchecking sites, report mis/disinformation. Simple, consistent communication over time. Clear messages, no use of jargon. More communication spread in an easy way (like video), spread on mainstream media and social media platforms. Every DG should have a set of clear de-mystifying messages as well as positive messages on its policies and this should be coupled with trainings and awareness raising measures for each member of the DG. Is there a sort of helpdesk we can turn to when, for instance, one of our delegations gets under a massive troll attack based on fake news? Also, get away from the idea of using multipliers and “thought leaders”. These are concepts of the last millennium. It is proven now that “likes” in social media are harmful. Why keeping this feature at all?
  • Why this is a trap: Maybe the elephant in the room is really: how do we know if a statement is really “absurd” or not. How to make sure we are not the ones with the misguided belief? It could even be seen as falling into the trap of populism= choosing quick fix, and simple response to a complex problem as we saw in the session on Addressing Populism. There is the nice saying that a lie can make it halfway around the world, before the truth can even be sent on its way. Who should decide about what is true (correct) information and what is not true (correct) information? I think before answering this, we should be clear about what is “disinformation”. Not every incorrect or even potentially misleading information should be labelled this way (and it still begs the question: who decides what is incorrect)… Maybe the first question should be: how do you recognize “false” information? Should we also talk about “confirmation bias” in this context? Do we agree on “our” principles?
  • The issue of mindsets: Some people want to blame others for the problems in their lives, and resorting to simplistic messages in disinformation can be appealing to them. Remember that some people want to believe the disinformation, and don’t want to be convinced. The spread of disinformation is also related to the rhetoric of ”’victimization”, a common form of rhetoric that attempts to establish an idea of a community being a victim to a conspiracy. I think in general too little attention goes to the “socially rewardiness” of expressing opinions, Often people say things that are socially rewarding, or self-serving clichés, but without any truth. Replacing conflicts by empathy and collaboration should be more valued in our highly conflictual patriarchal societies. What is socially rewarding for the messenger of the disinformation. It’s not only about hidden agendas.
  • More sophisticated strategies for smarter results: become proactive, rather than reactive. Also Fight vs disinformation within the Commission is very much fragmented. Strong need of a more integrated structure or at least closer coordination. The way to address this bad intention is not through entering conflict but through more collaboration. Increase inter-institutional collaboration, especially to benefit from stakeholders of EESC for instance. Good to hear that international collaboration is working with other organisations, such as UN, but what about inside the house? And with civil society organisations? We still do too many things on our own, we need to increase collaboration with other organisations to make sure the right information is released in a quicker way. But not only, even more important= Collaboration, collective intelligence and always more diversity in the room. That’s what we need. Use more opinion leaders. COVID-19 is particularly telling and even more challenging since parts at least of the scientific community dissent with their colleagues. Show empathy. Stating facts is not sufficient. You need to address the frustration behind the belief in disinformation. Duplicate good examples – e.g. Prague EC Representation responded often to misleading statements of member state representatives by “setting the facts straight” in an article in daily news. Question sources and facts; pick up only on elements that are evidenced. If you encounter possible misleading or misinformation statements, ask to explain the position, discuss it and see if it holds to scrutiny. Fact checking and sharing as response. Promote alternative narratives as opposed to addressing the disinformation. Leave aside what the message we want to spread should be. There are too many different views. Platform to help putting information in a context. Things are almost never 100% true or false. It would help to relativize.
  • As well as education: Offer books to your family and friends. A lot has to be done in terms of education in critical thinking of all age groups – mainly youth and seniors. Encourage Member States to prepare media literacy courses starting from primary schools. Create an EU Code of Conduct for Journalism. Does the Commission have a mandate to deliver a certificate to future journalists, which states they followed a programme? To educate them better. Make them aware of their biases; give them some more insights in research and statistics for example.
  • And legislation: Our weapon is legislation. I wonder if people think that the EU should take action against fake news websites https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fake_news_websites Why not force the social media companies to change their algorithms in such a way to disturb the “bubbling” effect? So people are confronted with other opinions than their own? Social media is owned by just a handful of organisations. Which can easily be controlled by legislation; their algorithms can be changed to avoid too much “bubbling”. On top of this, with social media a user can always and immediately react. These measures can not be taken to tackle mainstream media. There is a gap here. Isn’t mainstream media more dangerous than social media?
  • Fix at organisational level: Review our processes to react quicker. Reduce chain of visas. Avoid bottlenecks – create roles. The EU is more reactive on social media, but there’s still a good margin for improvement – not an easy task! Work more project-based. Need to create space for the networked organisation. We need to be quicker and more agile. Being proactive. With that in mind: we don’t need to be faster to debunk, we need to be there before that happens. Fighting organisational slowness. We are too slow! We mentioned reviewing our internal procedures to make sure we only keep the needed ones.
  • Possible acts at individual level: Everyone needs to act, and have the courage to tackle disinformation. This is the only way to avoid a bigger crisis. Get media training. Promote clear communication bearing in mind the KISS principe : keep it short and simple. Responding with courage and facts, avoiding emotions and conflicts. How can we engage with the recipients of disinformation (presuming that there is no point in engaging with the disinformers)? Ask which is the source of the (dis)info. Avoid aggressive tones and what can appear conflictual. Stick to facts. Avoid propaganda at all costs. We should not replace misleading news with EU propaganda. That would not help in any way.

Related links

Better understanding of the fallacies of fake news and conspiracy theories can help to build up resilience. A good (and neutral) source is Bo Bennet’s “Logically Fallacious“, e.g.

And my next big topic is “avoiding information overload”. Please note that until now I skipped some of the sessions we organised using the format of Ted Circles, I will share the recommendations coming from these sessions at the end of this series.

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