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How citizen groups are fighting internet misinformation and racial discord

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What is now labeled as misinformation dates back to at least the fourth century, when various religious groups engaged in ecumenical debates as they vied for unity and power in the early centuries of the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, religious sages led parishioners to believe that monarchs were chosen by God to rule in politics and religion. And the 20th century was marked by the propaganda disseminated by the leaders of communist, fascist and even sometimes democratic countries.

Today, lies are commonplace in politics and government and often spread and amplified on the internet by private actors. The security risks posed by widespread belief in conspiracy theories and other false or misleading information compel society to find ways to combat misinformation and disinformation.

But to date, most of the government’s attempts to tackle misinformation have not worked. Global cyber surveillance on social media platforms is nearly impossible to successfully implement, given the number of platforms and a multi-billion user base. Media literacy and counter-propaganda campaigns led by civil society groups appear to offer the most promising alternatives in the fight against disinformation. Emerging success stories include groups fighting against racial discrimination in the United States and a community of Lithuanian professionals from various industries who are using AI-based analytics tools to debunk lies on the internet.

The racial divide. The US State Department views countering disinformation as a shared responsibility of government leaders and citizens. President Joe Biden spoke about this battle in his inaugural address: “There is the truth and there are the lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders – leaders who are committed to honoring our Constitution and protecting our nation – to uphold the truth and to defeat the lies. One of the top five Russian disinformation narratives noted in a State Department fact sheet is “the impending collapse of Western civilization,” a narrative often deepened when disinformation is targeted to stoke racial tensions that foster domestic discord.

Win Black is an organization that has been very active in 2020 and 2021 to fight misinformation and disinformation in black communities. Win Black says social media platforms aren’t doing enough to remove misinformation posts that are meant to foster race-related conflict. In 2020 and 2021, the organization’s team combed through media content every day to strategically seek out misinformation where it regularly begins. The group’s methodology included corrective messages shared with black communities on the Internet. At its core, Win Black’s fight against misinformation was about creating engaging yet truthful internet content that could “rival all the bad news out there.”

Bots, i.e. automated social media accounts, regularly lure people into arguments that draw attention to misinformation content. Among many social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook are notorious for accounts operated by trolls or bots that argue for long periods of time, causing confusion and spreading misinformation. Such activity was an important part of Russia’s efforts to reduce black voting in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The National Black Cultural Information Trust, NAACP, and other groups are fighting this misinformation by identifying influencers. premises whose messages can be trusted. When bots and trolls start arguments, local influencers step in with a message of truth and other types of challenges that expose the reality that people are arguing with a bot.

To keep the fight against racial misinformation alive, the Media Democracy Fund helped launch the Disinfo Defense League, a group of more than 200 grassroots organizations that fight misinformation in black communities. Meanwhile, some black people are organizing to fight misinformation individually. Two black people with no technology or security background have created a clever hashtag that plays on black culture by acknowledging the language of non-black social media users who claim to be black and push misinformation. The approach comes from the fact that it is difficult to simulate African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics. The duo are looking for Twitter accounts owned by “black people” who are actually white supremacists spreading misinformation. When the accounts are discovered, both use the hashtag #yourwatch to indicate that something intended to be hidden is fullscreen. Twitter picked up on this tactic and was able to shut down some of the fake accounts pushing misinformation.

Media literacy is an important part of knowing when “you’re being played,” and some black celebrities use their status to promote media literacy in the black community. In 2020, Kevin Hart, Patrick Mahomes and LeBron James teamed up to create More than a votea campaign on Twitter to combat disinformation and misinformation about voting and to combat efforts to discourage voters from attempting to vote.

Black scholars are getting involved in countering misinformation through webinars, workshops and city forums. In 2021, a critical thinking project at the University of Southern California, the Critical Media Project, tested the effectiveness of an educational intervention to improve media literacy as a form of social justice. The project’s methods for tackling misinformation successfully equipped young people with the tools to challenge misinformation systems. A similar project has been undertaken by a collective university team promoting the importance of ‘digital citizenship’.

A counter-disinformation collective. Meanwhile, in Europe, Debunk EU has made strides against the distortion of truth, using what the group describes as a combination of “‘geeks’ + ‘elves’ + journalists” to counter misinformation and undermine messages. that divide social media. This non-profit organization originates from Lithuania and is funded by Delfi, the largest online news publisher in the Baltics, and the Digital News Initiative, a European organization created by Google to support quality journalism through the technological innovation.

Lithuanian elves – in fact, a community of professionals from foreign affairs, security, IT and related fields – use analytical tools powered by artificial intelligence to debunk lies on the net, calm fears rational and irrational, reinforce discredited truths. , and emphasizing data security that reduces bribes associated with public embarrassment. While their efforts primarily focus on national-level issues, they also combat race-related misinformation that breeds civil unrest in the United States.

In July 2022, Debunk EU exposed Kremlin-promoted disinformation stories that aimed to sway public opinion about Ukrainian refugees and Kyiv’s efforts to join the European Union. The accounts were found in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from June 26 to July 4 in state-aligned media and social media. Debunk EU tracked engagement with posts, including shares and likes. Misinformation articles and posts of this nature received from 154 to 7,122 interactions. The “geeks” of 10 think tanks monitored the propaganda and made efforts to debunk it.

Debunk EU also offers a “crash course” that aims to teach the public to recognize misinformation and disinformation. The eight-hour digital course explains how misinformation can be recognized in three steps. The course includes quizzes for students, diplomats, journalists and average citizens to help them increase their ability to recognize false information presented as true.

Digital citizen communities, grassroots advocacy groups, geek-pixies and journalists, and other like-minded organizations are leading the way in effectively countering misinformation. Government policies aimed at countering false narratives on the internet are also needed, but ongoing private sector efforts are a breath of fresh air and a guide to more comprehensive counter-disinformation programs.