The Road Ahead: Mapping Civil Society Responses to Disinformation, authored by Samantha Bradshaw and Lisa-Maria Neudert, is a working paper produced by the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
This publication is part of an International Forum working paper series, examining the dynamics and impact of resurgent authoritarian influence in the era of globalization, including through networked transnational kleptocracy and the manipulation of the global information space. For more on these themes, visit the Forum’s blog, Power 3.0: Understanding Modern Authoritarian Influence, and its related podcast.
Author’s Update (November 2022)
By Samantha Bradshaw, Assistant Professor in New Technology and Security, American University School of International Service
Disinformation, misinformation—and all other forms of information manipulation—have posed a significant challenge to society by heightening political and racial tensions, exacerbating war and violence, and undermining election integrity around the globe. To moderate information integrity threats, both inaction and insufficient action by platforms has created a trust deficit in big tech’s ability to address the problem. At the same time, threat actors have learned to weaponize the very concept of content moderation as an attack on free speech. Governments have also failed to regulate social media in a meaningful way, with most new laws designed focusing on the content. Not only is a content-focused approach insufficient for addressing dis- and mis-information at scale, but it has created a larger space for digital authoritarians to crack down on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It is in this information environment that civil society organizations (CSOs) play a critically important role.
CSOs have always been an important player in tackling some of the negative consequences of dis- and mis-information’s online dissemination. From implementing short-term initiatives such as fact-checking and verifying viral rumors, to designing long term strategies for media literacy and education, civil society has a range of tools and areas of expertise to strengthen the digital public sphere. But significant challenges remain to the work of CSOs. When Lisa-Maria and I first developed this report, CSOs discussed challenges around the diffusion of skills, access to platform data, or development of strategic partnerships across industry and academia. Today, many of these trends are still relevant, and some are starting to move in the wrong direction.
Following a series of whistleblowers and the reputational impact of ongoing negative press coverage of platform companies, many social media platforms are now further limiting access to data civil society would need to monitor the impact of social media-driven dis- and mis-information. Although there have been some initiatives to share more data, particularly with academic researchers at universities, these initiatives have fallen short. Similarly, academic researchers have even faced lawsuits for collecting data used in studies to promote the public good. The closing of APIs for data collection combined with legal pressures on academic institutions can stifle the research civil society needs to understand the broad effects social media is having on our democracies. The challenges researchers face in exposing these trends has motivated my own recent research in this arena building upon this report.[i]
These information integrity threats are also shifting from mainstream to alternative platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram that are more closed, leaving many civil society organizations in the dark about their specific country contexts. Collecting data from alternative platforms requires technical skills, and civil society actors do not always have access to the skills or tools to monitor the increasing number of places where dis- and mis-information thrive. The technical skills gap was and continues to be a geographic divide, where institutions and organizations in the United States and Europe tend to have more skilled workers to tackle these questions, compared to countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Thus, there is also a significant divide in how countries can assess and understand the unique impact these threats across different country contexts, and this divide will continue to grow without robust skills diffusion and training for the rest of the world. Through the Forum’s re-release of this report in Arabic, French, and Spanish, we hope to help address this troubling development.
Finally, dis- and mis-information is also not only about falsifiable statements but also about racism, sexism, and growing animosity across party lines. Many CSOs working to combat information integrity threats work in fact-checking are not necessarily equipped to deal with human biases. Diversifying existing CSO programming beyond fact-checking and into areas like media literacy, civics, and social cohesion is important—and must be done more at scale—to combat the broader online harms and rebuild the digital foundations of our democratic societies. As we look to the future, civil society must play a role in both the short-and-long-term solutions to information integrity threats. We must continue to invest in CSOs with novel approaches, develop their skills, and advocate for equal access to social media data to support this work that is foundational to our democracies.
[i] Samantha Bradshaw and Bridget Barrett, Civil Society Organizations’ Data, Access, and Tooling Needs for Social Media Research, Institute for Research on the Information Environment, June 1 2022, https://informationenvironment.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/RP5-Civil-Society-Organizations-Data-Access-and-Tooling-Needs-for-Social-Media-Research.pdf.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a central role in addressing disinformation’s growing impact on democracy. Given the vast scope of the global disinformation challenge, the landscape for CSOs working in this space has evolved rapidly in recent years. Established efforts to combat disinformation have incorporated the new challenges posed by social media into their agendas, while new initiatives have emerged to fill gaps in research, monitoring, and advocacy. The work of these organizations in the disinformation fight is critical for positively shaping policy making, improving platform responses, and enhancing citizen knowledge and engagement.
Yet, CSOs face ongoing challenges in this complex and fast-changing field. How has civil society grown in its understanding and response to the digital disinformation challenge and what should be done to further empower this work?
To acquire insights into these questions, this paper draws on two methods—a mapping exercise of civil society initiatives and a survey of leading CSOs working in this field. This approach reveals that CSOs bring a wide range of skill sets to the problem of digital disinformation. Some organizations focus on digital media literacy and education; others engage in advocacy and policy work. Another segment has developed expertise in fact-checking and verification. Other organizations have developed refined technical skills for extracting and analyzing data from social media platforms.
This research yielded several clear observations about the state of CSO responses to disinformation and, in turn, suggests several recommendations for paths forward.
- Prioritize Skill Diffusion and Knowledge Transfer. Civil society organizations seeking funding for counter-disinformation initiatives should emphasize the importance of skill diffusion and knowledge-transfer initiatives. The siloed nature of disinformation research points to a growing need to blend technical expertise with deep cultural and political knowledge.
- CSO researchers lack sufficient access to social media data. Survey respondents identified insufficient access to data as a challenge. Sometimes data are not made available to CSOs; in other instances, data are made available in formats that are not workable for meaningful research purposes. Unequal access to the data that private companies do provide can exacerbate regional inequities, and the nature of data sharing by social media platforms can unduly shape the space for inquiry by civil society and other researchers. Funders, platforms, and other key actors should develop approaches that provide
more consistent, inclusive data access to CSOs.
- Duplicative programming hampers innovation. CSOs drawing on similar tools, approaches, and techniques to meet similar goals pointed to three main factors preventing more specialized, innovative initiatives: lack of coordination, lack of specific expertise, and lack of flexible funding. Community building and collaboration among relevant organizations deserve more investment, as do initiatives that partner larger, established organizations with smaller or growing ones, or pool efforts, skill sets, and expertise to encourage diverse research by design rather than by coincidence.
- Relationships with tech platforms vary across regions. Surveyed CSOs often held simultaneously skeptical and positive opinions about their relationships with social media companies. Some receive preferential access to data and even funding for their work (raising concerns about independence), while others report a lack of responsiveness from company representatives. In the Global South and Eastern Europe, many CSOs expressed concern that platforms failed to meaningfully engage with them on issues of critical concern.
- More flexible funding and more diverse research are both necessary. To encourage greater platform accountability across varied geographic contexts, CSOs and their funders should draw on the perspectives of specific, under-analyzed communities.
- Regional divides in capacity influence the types of responses pursued by CSOs. Technology-reliant and resource-intensive responses are more common in North America and, to a lesser extent, Europe, and CSO representatives in those regions are more likely to have backgrounds in technology, software engineering, or data analysis. By extension, they are less likely to have backgrounds in fields often traditionally associated with CSOs, such as human rights, law, or the social sciences. To bridge these gaps, funders should emphasize support that builds knowledge between technical experts, civil
society, and journalism, with a particular emphasis on the Global South and smaller organizations working in underserved settings. The sphere devoted to combating disinformation must continue to evolve. Critical to this evolution will be civil society access to data, funding, and skills necessary for
the next generation of disinformation responses. The strength of these responses will be integral to shoring up democracy at a time when society is becoming increasingly digital.
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