How to Support a Globally Connected Counter-Disinformation Network
From undermining democracy to inciting genocide, the global dangers of disinformation on social media are now well known. But despite countless calls for better legal regulation or intensified content moderation, the efforts of governments and social media companies to combat this threat have proven either woefully inadequate or dangerous to democratic practice.
The problem is that we have been looking for the solution in the wrong place. Civil society, not governments or social media companies, can best diminish disinformation. But these civil society organizations need equipping, and their tools need sharpening. A powerful, networked disinformation threat should be met with a powerful, networked response. This means more data access, more training, and a more entrepreneurial approach to support groups around the world that are already on the front lines. By providing this support, ideally in a more coordinated fashion, donors and research organizations can help make these groups even more powerful in their response.
Governments and Tech Companies Aren’t the Solution
While Americans often point to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election as the moment social media disinformation became a problem, the rest of the world was already worried. Political disinformation has impacted elections in every region. Hate speech has led to violence and genocide in Burma, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Authoritarian states’ systems of propaganda have amplified conspiracy theories about the pandemic and encouraged intimidation of Western scholars.
As civil society groups have pioneered their own responses, social media platforms are struggling with how to regulate themselves, and governments are struggling with how to regulate these platforms. Some governments have rapidly developed their own counter-disinformation capabilities. The Department of Defense, for example, has begun to prioritize counter-disinformation, with U.S. Special Operations Command focusing on adversarial disinformation operations outside of wartime. Sweden, in turn, has established a Psychological Defense Agency to counter foreign influence operations.
The risk, however, is that government agencies are naturally inclined to prioritize national security over values in their decision-making. When governments, militaries, and law enforcement agencies expose disinformation, they inevitably focus on its threat to national interests. When the United States, European nations, or Taiwan publicize Chinese-sourced information operations that undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty, the content of and intention behind their outreach focuses on maintaining cross-straits stability or ensuring Taiwan’s security. However, civil society organizations — like, say, Taiwan’s Doublethink Lab — will focus on a broader value set and on defending Taiwan’s information environment as a whole.
The worst approach for democratic governments would be to act like the trolls and conduct covert, inauthentic operations of their own. Such a response is antithetical to the values of democracy, and can end up being counter-productive or generating a mixed bag of positive and negative results, as past in-depth research has shown. Foreign governments often lack the credibility that local civil society has, a point emphasized by a study meant to advise the French government’s counter-disinformation work.
Domestically, intensive government regulation of the online environment quickly faces difficult trade-offs between freedom of expression and censorship. It’s natural for government policymakers to want to “do something” in the face of unfolding information threats. However, government’s proper role in defending the information space revolves around empowering credible non-governmental voices, ensuring a level and competitive playing field for information to flow freely, and developing the highest possible transparency standards for traditional and social media organizations. Establishing “fake news” laws and other heavy-handed regulatory measures risk further politicizing truth and enabling the state’s capture of media.
In light of these concerns, some advocates have suggested that the solution is better self-regulation by social media companies. Facebook (now under the name Meta) houses the largest content-moderation operation of any social media platform in the world, involving at least 15,000 people. But despite this, it has not succeeded in stemming the tide of disinformation. Part of the problem is that Facebook spends a meager 13 percent of its resources moderating non-U.S. users, although they constitute 90 percent of its global user base. But critics have also identified deeper issues that cannot be addressed with more money or people. “Self-regulation” regularly falls victim to conflicting business and safety motives, creating an insurmountable problem for content moderation. Simply relying on the social media platforms’ civic integrity operations to play both judge and jury has failed, as the leaked Facebook Papers clearly showed.
One promising alternative is “middleware” solutions, which allow civil society organizations to take on investigatory, adjudication, and monitoring roles within social media platforms. Alongside others, programs at Stanford are leading the way in thinking through the mechanics of how this “middleware” could supplement — and even serve as a deciding factor in — regulation of the online information environment. Another organization, founded by ex-Facebook employees, has sought to unite civic integrity professionals in developing high standards and solutions to monitor and respond to disinformation. These civic initiatives all have the same goal in common: remove the platforms as the sole monitors, decision-makers, and enforcers of content decisions.
The information space — online news, social media, and traditional media — should be made safe for democracy. Reliable, authentic information is critical to transparent, accountable governance and to citizens’ ability to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Platforms and governments are simply not set up to prioritize democratic values over business or national interest considerations.
Civil Society Can Best Tackle Disinformation
The global campaign against disinformation should have civil society at its core. Modern, entrepreneurial, and collaborative civil society organizations have proven more effective and sustainable than other alternatives in serving as global watchdogs and countering the influence of authoritarians and hate speech. Because of their efforts, a new global vision for fighting disinformation is emerging: a loosely connected web of hyper-local organizations that constantly learn from one another, are equipped with response tools by funders and research organizations, and enjoy genuine access to and power within social media platforms and regulatory bodies.
Civil society organizations designed to counter social media disinformation are sprouting up nearly everywhere in the world, even amid threats of increasingly closed or illiberal societies and authoritarian pressures. One organization has counted 117 different types of interventions operating just in Europe and Eurasia. A second research project catalogued more than 280 different types of interventions in over 80 countries, while yet another was able to survey 53 organizations (but acknowledged there was a much larger field). The National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies produced research that identified 175 counter-disinformation organizations. New organizations are being founded at a rapid pace, and existing foundations and development organizations are focusing more on these information space threats. The difficulty of precisely mapping the field shows just how dynamic it is.
These civil society organizations are sophisticated, nimble, and collaborative. My organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, recently concluded a months-long set of workshops to help connect some of the most innovative organizations, including those outside the United States and Western Europe, and highlighted some of their work in an essay series.
Civil society organizations are harnessing the power of technology and advanced media-monitoring tools. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute used an algorithm derived from third-party companies to map a wide range of inauthentic accounts coordinated with Chinese Communist Party officials and outsourced “disinformation-for-hire” firms. U.S.-based research firm Graphika used its in-house advanced machine-learning algorithm to map disinformation networks, such as one amplifying disinformation about COVID-19 and harassing public health officials. Slovakian think tank Globsec developed polling, focus groups, and surveys to measure the vulnerability of regional democracies to foreign influence operations. Code for Africa developed PesaYetu, a data visualization tool for journalists and activists to hold local officials accountable for disinformation they peddle about governance and city services.
The global information space is a muddled maze of longstanding and emerging social media platforms, offline peddlers of falsehoods and truths, and state-backed propagandist outlets intermixed with independent, journalism-minded ones. Counter-disinformation responders are wading into this milieu through adaptive and entrepreneurial methods. In the Czech Republic, self-titled “elves” are intentionally using decentralized groups of citizens to fight online disinformation from Russia and elsewhere. In a nod to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Center for International Media Assistance documented satirists and humorists throughout the world exposing disinformation by laughing their way through it with their audiences. Organizations like 263Chat, AfricaCheck, and the Continent are using chatbots, on-demand podcasts, and new business models to infuse independent media voices and fact-checking into closed messaging apps, like WhatsApp, that are beginning to populate Africa’s social media landscape.
These organizations increasingly play well with others, too. Some are highly collaborative across borders, and others are interdisciplinary in their approach. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has trained analysts (called “Digital Sherlocks”) on five continents to detect and monitor disinformation in their online environments. Code for Africa has spawned new localized digital and civic tech initiatives in 20 countries on the African continent, and equipped newsrooms with digital forensic analysis and cybersecurity training for outlets under pressure from illiberal or authoritarian governments. Sydney’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute International Cyber Policy Centre brings together experts from different disciplines, such as computer science, engineering, political science, area studies, and mathematics. Interdisciplinary organizations have developed some of the more ground-breaking studies that have led to significant impacts and platform takedowns.
How to Help Civil Society Organizations Succeed
If local civil society organizations should be at the core of a global counter-disinformation response, where do Western funders, platforms, and governments fit in? These entities should play to their strengths in this global network: their size, financial and human resources, analytic capabilities, and global reach.
First, local civil society groups need more data access. A small outfit in, for example, Indonesia or Bolivia best understands how local populations consume information, but often lacks the analytical tools to sort through the maze of social media information to effectively map the environment in front of them. The analytical tools that bigger counter-disinformation organizations have at their disposal need to be made available to these smaller organizations. Existing initiatives should be scaled up in order to reach deeper into the Global South. Platforms should further expand the data-sharing partnerships that civil society organizations have called for and find ways to provide more immediate, real-time access to threat networks that Facebook and other platforms are increasingly disclosing. Platforms should avoid prioritizing the largest, U.S-based organizations in allotting this treasured access and ensure that a bigger group of civil society organizations from developing regions are even more integrated.
Additionally, new government counter-disinformation and intelligence agencies have a wealth of data and tools for analysis that need to be unlocked for civil society. Huge new military, foreign affairs, and intelligence programs that map the information environment and monitor foreign and social media platforms should afford some level of access for counter-disinformation civil society organizations. As they gain more platform and government access, these organizations should maintain strict autonomy when it comes to their editorial decision-making and staffing. Independence should remain the hallmark of civil society.
Second, local civil society groups need more training. Many find themselves outmatched by domestic and foreign disinformation networks. The pace of change set by disinformation networks, as well as the proliferation of new platforms open to their manipulation, is relentless. Civil society organizations need to be at the cutting edge. U.S.-based organizations have published helpful guides and best practices for other groups, but local organizations need even more direct support, curricula, and education. A survey of global counter-disinformation organizations by researchers at the National Endowment for Democracy and the Oxford Internet Institute found that many counter-disinformation groups outside of America and parts of Europe lacked training in the data and social science fields that their Western counterparts had. Not only will highly skilled organizations be more effective, they will also be able to maintain higher standards and as a result serve as more credible messengers of truth.
Third, funders need to act more like venture capitalists. Venture capitalists are often unafraid to fail. They think of their investments more as seed money or down payments and less as transactions that immediately pay a benefit. Funders from governments and prominent foundations need to operate in the same way. Like disinformation operations themselves, measuring the impact of counter-disinformation efforts can be difficult, and the payoff can sometimes come in the long term. Micro-managing funded projects from afar in order to produce X outcome from Y program can lead to poor results and even distrust between funders and local organizations. Funding needs to be long-term and flexible so local organizations can adapt to new threats and sustain operations in more closed, authoritarian settings.
Finally, funders, both new and established, need to find ways to avoid fostering an overly competitive landscape among civil society organizations. A more formal mechanism could help provide some of the above-mentioned resources to groups around the world in a more systematic fashion.
The solution to disinformation is not to substitute government power for that of tech giants, or to leave it to the tech giants in the hope their platforms don’t trample the truth. Regulating speech and online expression presents many dangers to democratic ideals and freedom of expression. The COVID-19 pandemic and the global acceleration of illiberalism have resulted in a wave of government censorship, borne of a combination of authoritarian leanings and government frustration with rampant online disinformation. Civil society can step into this breach in effective ways, both to warn governments of the perils of such laws and to serve as a check on the power of social media firms. But this vision for a powerful, networked response to meet the global disinformation challenge will fail if the organizations at the front lines are not equipped with the right tools.
Kevin Sheives, @KSheives, serves as the associate director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. He spent nearly 15 years in various China-focused positions in the State Department, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, and the House of Representatives. He has published on disinformation, authoritarian influence, and China in Nikkei Asia, The Diplomat, Pacific Affairs, and through the International Forum.