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The war on misinformation: What counts as a win?

Will we ever be free of bad information or do we simply learn coping strategies to keep up the fight?

ALMOST ONE MONTH ago, The Good Information Project asked if we were winning the war against misinformation.

As false information from the pandemic dovetails into false information about the Ukraine-Russia conflict on our social media feeds, it might seem like the answer would be an obvious ‘no’. 

However over the last few weeks, as part of our deep dive into the battle against misinformation, we’ve examined how governments, journalists, academics and audiences are defending and dispelling mistruths despite the deluge coming through our screens – and as it turns out, the answer is a bit more nuanced. 

Tools, strategies and tactics on how to get ahead of online disinformation was our first point of order as we gathered Irish misinformation experts at our live event to pick their brains.  

The panel at the University College Cork saw disinformation specialist Dr Eileen Culloty of DCU trade insights with The Journal’s Assistant News Editor Stephen McDermott and MEP Barry Andrews. 

An Ireland Thinks poll conducted by The Journal found 68% of respondents said a factcheck had never changed their belief or opinion on a particular issue, which was put to the panel. 

Dr Culloty reminded the audience that when it comes to using tools like factchecks to change their beliefs that “there’s often a lot more going on than whatever the facts are.”

“It would be really odd if a factcheck came along and just changed somebody’s mind,” she told the audience, noting that factchecks were still a valuable resource for others looking to demonstrate truths.  

MEP Barry Andrews talked about European Parliament measures to combat the spread of disinformation while Stephen McDermott laid out the tried and true tactics of misinformation in the hopes of spotting it straight off the bat. 

Using the example of rising Covid case numbers last year being incorrectly used to claim vaccines aren’t effective, McDermott mused that “some of the most sticky disinformation narratives have an element of truth in them”. 

Looking at the big picture

As part of the deep dive over the past month, we looked at the biggest stories and themes in the world of misinformation right now. 

The individual users of the international open source community have been actively fighting untrue narratives about the Ukraine-Russian war by verifying reports from the region using satellite imagery, social media and digital sleuthing. 

Paddy Kerley spoke to The Journal about how he verified stories around Russian soldiers in Chernobyl from his home in Ireland ‘in the middle of nowhere’ using ‘the right data and maths.’

Pulitzer prize-winner (and Limerick native) Malachy Browne shared how his team analysed social media from 6 January rioters to piece together how the Capitol Riots unfolded. 

Verifying war through a screen using a mixture of satellites, social media, air traffic logs and other data “can reveal indisputable facts around war crimes and other atrocities denied by governments”, according to Browne.

The senior story producer with the New York Times Visual Investigations team used satellite imagery to cut across Russian denials of involvement in the civillian massacre at Bucha, Ukraine. 

Russian disinformation is emerging as the EU frontline for factcheckers with the volume highlighted by the recent Ukraine invasion. 

Tommaso Canetta coordinates European factcheckers for the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), monitoring what disinformation is popping up and where it comes from. 

He told our Open Newsroom webinar he was seeing different versions of the same narratives repeated: the war invasion was justified, Ukrainian forces are Nazis and Ukrainian refugees are not genuine etc. 

“It’s unprecedented how the same false news is travelling across the continent,” he said. 

Despite the sheer amount of it, Russian disinformation isn’t always effective, according to Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. 

“As much as Russia’s good at doing this, their tactics are not overly sophisticated,” she said. 

They’re not – but a report from the European parliament revealed governments are ‘overwhelmingly unaware’ from states like Russia when it comes to foreign interference in public debate. 

Their solution? The Digital Services Act which aims to tighten regulation around social media. 

Another solution might lie in cutting misinformation off at the chase by teaching people to spot it from then get go.

Dr Sander van de Linden explained how inoculation theory (which we all became familiar with during the pandemic) can be applied to false information.

‘Prebunking’ gives people a ‘weak’ dose of misinformation and shows them how they’ve been manipulated to believe false stories. 

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Instead of just correcting the false information after the fact, which is what factchecks do, prebunking teaches people what red flags to look out for before audiences get sucked in. 

As our exploration of disinformation draws to a close, the answer to a simple question of ‘are we winning the fight?’ remains quite complicated. 

It depends on what we define as a victory. 

It could be the complete eradication of false information, governments legislating against it, or increased media literacy so people don’t believe it even if it’s there. 

It’s clear disinformation is here to stay but the technologies used to spread it are also being harnessed to ameliorate it and audiences are more aware of it than ever. 

Journalists, academics and individuals are passionate about remaining in the fight because the alternative of letting bad information win isn’t really much of a choice. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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