Written by Amy Studdart, Senior Advisor for Digital Democracy at the International Republican Institute
Civil society approaches to countering disinformation encompass a variety of program types, including fact-checking, digital forensics and research, advocacy to governments and platforms, digital and media literacy, networking and coalition building, and international cooperation. Across these program approaches, implementation by civil society organizations (CSOs) has several advantages that could plausibly increase the effectiveness of programs. Civic groups can rapidly innovate, they are more closely connected to citizens that disinformation affects, better placed to understand its immediate impact, and able to build trust with local communities – a key factor in responding to specific information disorders – and more likely to be perceived by all parties as relatively objective. More specifically, civic associations promote the cooperation of citizens from distinct interest and identity groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. As such, among key stakeholders, these organizations and coalitions are often best placed to identify disinformation campaigns that target marginalized groups or that exploit existing gender norms or social divisions, and to mobilize broad opposition and responses to these campaigns. Across countries and global regions, civic groups have designed and implemented the following types of counter-disinformation programs:
Fact-checking initiatives attempt to identify and correct false or misleading information propagated either by political and economic elites or through peer-to-peer interactions on social media or messaging apps. Civic groups are uniquely placed to implement these programs for two related reasons: first, by acting as relatively objective, dispassionate sources, CSOs can be sources for corrections, especially given the highly politicized nature of disinformation campaigns. Second, CSOs tend to be less constrained, especially relative to journalists, in both methods and solutions.
CSOs, often in collaboration with academics or research organizations, have played a prominent role in uncovering information operations. Civic groups have identified ongoing information operations around elections, identified coordinated inauthentic behavior for platforms, and conducted media monitoring to identify key information narratives. CSOs are often particularly well-placed to support the uptake and utilization of outputs from sophisticated research approaches, ensuring that findings are quickly actionable for decisionmakers or targets of disinformation campaigns. Furthermore, as women and other marginalized groups are often early targets of emerging campaigns, civic groups that represent these interests are often best placed to identify the emergence of these tactics, and to advocate for effective responses.
In their role as a mediator between citizens and governments, CSOs have a natural function of advocacy. Specifically, CSOs are well placed to identify how disinformation campaigns target and harm marginalized groups, which might not otherwise be obvious to the platforms themselves, and subsequently to advocate for platform policy changes that respond to those specific issues. However, civic groups face several challenges in advocacy toward media outlets and digital platforms, including strong platform financial incentives, limited access to decisionmakers, and knowledge gaps within civic groups. Network and coalition-based approaches to advocacy, particularly internationally, can help overcome these challenges by increasing leverage through collective action, including by amplifying the voices of marginalized groups and linking their priorities to broader policy goals
Civil society plays two critical roles vis-à-vis government responses to disinformation: (1) advocating for pro-democratic policies that protect and advance information integrity, including the equal value and equal rights of association for marginalized groups whose participation perpetrators of disinformation often seek to undermine, and (2) ensuring that responses to disinformation, information operations, and other information disorders do not clamp down on free speech, access to information, or participatory politics in ways that might harm democratic processes and principles, again with a focus on how restrictions on association and expression often disproportionately affect marginalized groups Again, the perception of CSOs as relatively objective can increase their credibility with decisionmakers, and collective action between organizations can make advocacy campaigns more effective.
CSOs’ connection to local communities and position as a relatively trusted source of information make them ideally placed to design and implement public awareness and media literacy programs. These interventions are implemented under the assumption that if audiences can utilize necessary critical thinking skills while consuming online and traditional media content, it will increase their ability to differentiate between factual and misleading or fake content. While the internet and social media platforms have improved access to media and information, as well as the plurality of news sources, they have nonetheless contributed to a decline in the quality of news and information. Improved media and digital literacy among audiences could play a significant role in helping reduce susceptibilities to disinformation overtime. Public awareness campaigns by civic groups can also help create perceptions of shared interests, particularly where they highlight how disinformation campaigns affect the democratic rights or engagement of women and other marginalized groups that might not otherwise be visible.
However, international collaboration, especially in terms of philanthropy and development assistance, should consider limitations imposed by small grants and short timelines. Responding to information disorders, or building resilience to them in the first place, may require infrastructure with high startup costs, and long-term ongoing support to ensure these initiatives are sustainable.
CSOs have been critical in serving as a trusted source of information, particularly in environments in which state media or the government are the main perpetrators of disinformation, and in which the active propagation of disinformation is accompanied by censorship. While “word of mouth” and other creative information distribution activities have always been present in closed societies, those channels have taken on greater formality and scale as digital technologies, and particularly encrypted group chat applications, have become widely accessible.
International cooperation is a critical factor behind civil society success. In addition to the leverage issue vis-à-vis companies discussed in this chapter, international cooperation allows civil society to share best practices in the rapidly evolving fields of digital forensics and counter-messaging, and to share information about emerging transnational threats and the proliferation of disinformation toolkits used by malign actors, both foreign and domestic.
Civic organizations play a key role in identifying and responding to information disorders, especially where they can establish reputations as relatively independent, objective actors. However, these advantages come with tradeoffs, especially if their constituencies tend to be relatively urban, highly educated, wealthier, or more internet-connected on average. Program designs should take care to target interventions to encourage uptake among underserved groups.
Network and coalition approaches to countering disinformation, including international collaboration, can identify comparative advantages, increase scale, and improve the diversity of programmatic approaches.
Relatedly, programs focused on civil society should incorporate an intentional focus on inclusion, and more specifically, the intersectionality of multiple marginalized identities, particularly in coalition and network approaches. Support for civic groups should incorporate a distinct analysis to identify unique challenges faced by individuals facing multiple forms of marginalization within a specific historical context, since perpetrators of disinformation campaigns may rely on the apathy or complicity of non-marginalized identity groups. Collective action is more likely when these groups and individuals that are not politically or socially marginalized understand that they have an interest in defending the rights of minority and marginalized groups.
Civic organizations may consider partnering with existing political or social institutions to scale programmatic responses to disinformation, especially if the organization itself has a small or narrow audience. One example might include partnering with school systems to implement media-literacy programs.
Programs working on advocacy, especially around internet or platform regulation, should consider the specific cultural context of debates surrounding tradeoffs between free expression and security.
Programs working with civic organizations to implement counter-disinformation programs should consider dedicated security training components, including cybersecurity, data protection, response plans for information attacks, and physical security from retaliation.