Until a few years ago, disinformation was talked about mostly as a geopolitical tactic. Throughout the Cold War and up through the 2016 election, concerns over disinformation centered on foreign governments, in particular their motives and tactics. Now, disinformation seems to have metastasized and is blamed for bedeviling elections, impairing pandemic response, and fanning conflicts.
Most disinformation containment strategies focus on ferreting out and curtailing malign actors or curbing the viral spread of falsehoods on social media. But in a society that respects free speech, it will never be possible to eliminate disinformation at the source, nor to stanch its spread. The originators of disinformation—not just foreign governments but conspiracists, provocateurs, and paid propagandists—are too diffuse to be shut down; even trying to shut them down would unavoidably impinge on expressive rights. Experts cannot agree on whether the COVID lab leak theory is a hoax or not; trying to conclusively identify and eliminate all disinformation would unavoidably end up muzzling much legitimate—and even essential—debate.
As we grope for solutions to address the spread of disinformation, we need to consider not just the supply, but also demand. Stopping disinformation will also require a more refined understanding of who consumes it and why. It can be easy to caricature those who traffic in disinformation as guileless, or to rail at cluelessness that compromises public health or election outcomes. But, as with stopping smoking or promoting recycling, containing disinformation will depend upon changing consumer behavior. This requires recognizing that information consumers are not all alike—but that there’s a useful way to categorize them.
Information consumers can be divided into the anchored, the adrift, and the marooned. The informationally anchored have a firm understanding of which media outlets, government agencies, medical professionals, and other experts to turn to for trusted news and information. When these people learned from health authorities that COVID vaccines were safe and effective, they got jabbed. The key strategy for the anchored is to keep them that way by avoiding giving them grounds to jump ship from trusted vessels. Mainstream news outlets need to uphold their standards and reputations so that disaffected subscribers don’t wander away. Lapses into political bias, corporate cronyism, speed-driven sloppiness, or blurred lines between news and opinion can drive away dubious audiences. While Reuters, the AP, and other newsrooms are doing much more to verify photos, videos, and other forms of evidence adduced in reporting, few if any newsrooms have adopted concerted strategies to assist journalists in identifying and reporting on disinformation, a gap that leaves the mainstream media at risk of serving as a prime disinformation vector. For government agencies, public trust is sacred. Equivocations, evasions, and capture by narrow interest groups can lead the once-anchored to waver. Sustaining and expanding the ranks of the informationally anchored is a crucial defense against disinformation.
Those in the second group, the informationally marooned, have already been lured off to a hard-to-reach island where false information, conspiracy theories, and quackery reign. They know what they believe, but on issues as fundamental as whether COVID is a hoax or whether Joe Biden won the election, what they believe is false. Rogue news sites, shadowy online groups, and propaganda purveyors have won them over, while they regard traditional earmarks of reliable information—officialness, evidence, and professional journalistic reporting—as suspect. The informationally marooned pose a formidable challenge because they are primed to reject fact-based reasoning. Often the best access point to those who are alienated from traditional and trustworthy information sources is their friends and family. There are proven strategies to enable probing conversations over the dinner table or beers at the bar that may help pierce layers of suspicion. Research on deradicalization also provides clues on how to lure people back from extreme ideologies and baseless beliefs. Mentoring them, exposing them to diverse viewpoints and peoples, and helping them access mental health resources, if they’re willing, may help reach some of those who are lost at sea.
But the weight of our anti-disinformation efforts should target the middle group: the informationally adrift. Drowning in a sea of articles, videos, memes, and posts, they don’t have a firm grip on what to believe, what to question, and what to spurn outright. They have heard so much about errors, misjudgments, and biases in news sources that they are prone to perpetual doubt. They digest contradictory information and lack criteria to govern what is credible. In some cases they have been betrayed, lied to, or abandoned by institutions to which they once owed faith. The adrift have no single political orientation or ideology. They include those who suspect that the research recommending COVID vaccination might be inflected by racial prejudice, as well as by those who sniff hidden government or corporate agendas to curtail their freedom. Celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Matthew McConaughey have been ridiculed for wanting to do their “own research” to validate claims by public health authorities. But they gave voice to legions who are stumbling around a crowded, confusing, ungoverned landscape trying to figure out which direction to turn.
For the adrift, efforts must focus on getting them anchored. Three elements are essential: education, augmented access to trusted news sources, and tailored emphasis on targeted communities.
Teachers, school systems, and policymakers have slowly awakened to the urgency of providing media literacy education that can gird students to distinguish between legitimate and bogus information sources. Young people spend vast amounts of time on their phones amid deluges of news, information, and videos that they are not taught how to parse or assess. During the early days of the internet, media literacy education programs won some support from Knight, MacArthur, and other foundations, but those efforts lost focus, and funding, due to a lack of perceived urgency. Now, the spread of disinformation has turned the tide, helping to spawn a cottage industry of media literacy organizations and a fount of materials. As of early 2020, 14 U.S. states had adopted laws requiring some form of media literacy classroom education. More research is imperative to verify the efficacy of particular media literacy strategies and curricula, and to determine how widely and well state mandates are being implemented. The U.S. now needs a push to incorporate media literacy education in all U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools as a core element of 21st century education.
A second crucial element is augmenting access to trusted information sources. Chief among those is local news. The local news industry has been ravaged by disappearing advertising revenue, consolidation, and corporate raiding. More than one-quarter of newsrooms across the country have shuttered, including more than 100 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online disinformation has moved in to fill the vacuum. There is no single solution to reviving local news: New business models, philanthropic interventions, and government supports are all crucial. The proposal to supplement local newsroom coffers with a payroll tax credit valued at $1.7 billion as part of the Build Back Better bill is one crucial step. The measure would give local news outlets $25,000 for every locally focused journalist they employ in the first year, and $15,000 each year for four years after that, providing a big incentive to put more reporters on more beats. But money won’t solve everything. The decline in local news is partially a function of dwindling support from communities who believe their media outlets don’t serve them adequately, and they have retreated from subscriptions. To win back readers and influence, local news outlets need to engage more with changing populations in the cities they serve, ensuring that new resources are invested in ways that heighten their relevance and credibility in the community’s eyes.
A third key element is recognizing that the adrift are hardly one unvariegated mass. Disinformation purveyors target specific demographics and communities for particular reasons: They may be trying to sway Venezuelan American voters in Florida toward thinking Joe Biden is a communist, discourage Black Americans from voting at all, or convince Chinese Americans online to fundraise for the Proud Boys. Defense efforts against disinformation need to target specific communities, identifying the right intermediaries to help pierce myths and guide citizens toward reliable sources. The pathways of information transmission in particular communities may circumvent the mainstream media and rely more on social and family connections, hyperlocal or ethnic websites and news outlets, or religious and civic organizations. As community doctors have played a critical role in coaxing their patients to overcome vaccine hesitancy, politicians, civic leaders, and election officials need to be activated to affirmatively debunk voting-related disinformation within the communities they know best. Media literacy materials must be made available in relevant languages, and educators need to partner with organizations that have reach and credibility with the most vulnerable communities, ensuring that interventions are culturally competent. Researchers and policymakers need to pay more attention to the flow of foreign disinformation through private chat platforms like WeChat and WhatsApp, which don’t offer fact-checking and are shielded from public view.*
There is no easy fix to our current information dysfunction. To cure it, we will need more research into each category of information consumer and how to reach them. Shifting behaviors must begin with an understanding of who information consumers are, and how they navigate the choppy waters of our public discourse.
Correction, Dec. 16, 2021: This piece originally misspelled WhatsApp.