By Mallika Goel
In a world where we are constantly faced with a barrage of information, it becomes progressively harder to discern truth, which by itself is highly subjective, from a labyrinth of disinformation, deliberately designed to play upon our worst instincts and influence public opinion. The situation becomes even more complicated in conflict-ridden settings, as the spread of disinformation is not simply an abstract phenomenon but has very real, high stakes implications. The question of how this should be addressed was the focus of a workshop entitled ‘Monitoring and Countering Disinformation for Peacebuilding: Tools, Methodologies and Case Studies’, organised on day 4 of Geneva Peace Week.
The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds including journalism, research and peacebuilding, thereby bringing many different perspectives to the fore. A common strand in each of their presentations was how the internet provides a fertile ground for the spread of disinformation. As Mr. Ndangoui, Editor-in-Chief of Radio Ndeke Luka articulated, “Rumours spread from mouth to ear are now transmitted over the internet, faster and wider. Journalists have to be better prepared to deal with this challenge.”
It is also important to remember that disinformation is not necessarily ‘false information’. As Mr. Krasodomski-Jones, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media put forth, it also includes the selective sharing of accurate news to push a certain agenda. This becomes even more pertinent through social media, which acts as an echo chamber, polarising people who know half the story from those who know the other half.
Disinformation has the advantage of being simple, easily summed up in a few catchy slogans, while the reality is much more complicated and boring. As Ms. Elliot, Senior Projects Manager at BBC Media Action, rightly pointed out, accurate news needs to be disseminated in a more accessible way. This includes creating shareable social media posts giving clear messages on verified claims to reach a wider audience.
While the means for spreading disinformation have clearly improved in the recent past, this still does not explain why people are not more critical, and tend to believe the news at face value. Mr Meuter, Head of Policy and Research at Fondation Hirondelle, argued that individuals draw comfort from the simple fact of being able to access information, which can provide a sense of control, whether or not it is actually reliable. Thus, having information often takes precedence over having the right information.
A key point that I will be taking away from the session is that research shows that education is not necessarily a good indicator of who will fall for disinformation or resist it. A better indicator is cognitive reflexion, that is, the capacity to think about the way we think. In other words, being aware of our own cognitive biases. As the infodemic doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down, perhaps the best we can do at an individual level is introspect about our own conditioning, and resist the impulse for seeking simple black-and-white answers in a grey world.
Geneva Peace Week 2021 will be held between November 1st and 5th covering four thematic tracks: Creating a Climate for Collaboration, Moving beyond Securitization, Harnessing the Digital Sphere for Peace, and Confronting inequalities and advancing inclusion, peace, and SDG16. Find more information and registration links here.