The United Nations was conceived with the audacious vision of uniting all countries to build a more peaceful, more just, and more prosperous world for all generations to follow. 75 years later, the UN’s core principles of sovereignty, cooperation, and mutual understanding are as relevant as ever as our global community struggles with an unrelenting pandemic, an economic downturn disproportionately affecting the developing world, and increasing sociopolitical polarization. Contributing to this polarization is the dramatic rise in disinformation and misinformation, which serves to erode trust in public institutions, exacerbate class conflict, foment fear and hatred, and jeopardize our very democracies. The spread of propaganda and conspiracy theories is not a new phenomenon, of course. However, the technologies and platforms that now connect billions of people around the world have enabled the creation and rapid dissemination of more sophisticated and dangerous forms of distortion than ever before.
This webinar highlighted a few main takeaways which are highlighted below:
- There are three main types of false information: disinformation (the dissemination of false information to polarize or create counter narratives), misinformation (the spreading of incorrect information), and malinformation (the sharing of private information with the intention to damage an institution or individual).
- President Trump and his allies have created a crisis in journalism due to the large number of falsehoods they employ, according to Schiller. While reporters previously could simply report on what government officials said, they now must find ways to report on falsehoods without amplifying them. Furthermore, our definition of “news media” has become increasingly unclear as there are so many forms of media available, some of which are based on legitimate reporting techniques but many of which are not.
- The large amount of false information about the pandemic has severely affected people’s behavior. 20-30% of people are still not wearing masks because they don’t believe they are effective. West notes how this will only get worse down the line as half of Americans state that they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine, likely influenced by the lack of trust surrounding its importance, efficacy, and safety. Schiller built on this, pointing out how anti-vaxx movements are likely to launch large disinformation campaigns.
- West emphasized that we need to be more serious about understanding how false information operates and how we can combat it. People have a responsibility to educate themselves, such as through digital literacy programs. Media literacy is a long-term issue and requires the implementation of civic education in schools—a challenging task in the U.S. as the education system is very decentralized. Schiller endorsed the National Literacy Project as a resource.
- While many technology companies are moving in the right direction by taking down fake accounts, they still need to be more aggressive than they currently are. As West discusses in his book Turning Point, AI is part of the problem but can also contribute greatly to resolving it. It was discussed whether social media platforms should be responsible for not only taking down incorrect information but also proactively providing correct information, and Sarukhan underlined the necessity of building narratives around data and creating compelling stories to engage and draw people in. As stated by Sarukhan, “If you give people facts without a story, then they will interpret it within their existing belief system and create their own narratives.” It was noted that this level of proactivism will be controversial and difficult to achieve at scale.
- Regulation offers one solution, but at a cost. Panelists discussed the positive role regulation has played in combatting human trafficking, but warned against overregulation as a means to silent discourse.
- Shifting to potential whole-of-society approaches, Sarukhan highlighted the need for information clearinghouses from various sources, given that the multiplication of media platforms over the past years has caused people to become siloed, with a clear lack of cross-pollination of ideas and debate.