The role of civil society in fighting disinformation is multifaceted: fact-checking, digital forensics and research, advocacy to governments, advocacy to platforms, digital literacy campaigns, reconciliation, and international cooperation.
While definitions of civil society vary widely, and indeed there is significant debate about what does and does not constitute civil society, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, provides a conceptualization that corresponds closely to democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) practitioners understand the concept:
“Civil society is…the realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules. It is distinct from "society" in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state, and hold state officials accountable. Civil society is an intermediary entity, standing between the private sphere and the state. Thus, it excludes individual and family life, inward-looking group activity (e.g., for recreation, entertainment, or spirituality), the profit-making enterprise of individual business firms, and political efforts to take control of the state.”1
Pointedly, civil society (as an ideal type) creates what political scientists call “cross-cutting cleavages” – overlapping identities that transcend narrow identities or interest groups based on gender, economic class, race or ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or political affiliation2. Association through civic groups creates familiarity and a sense of shared interests between members of disparate and narrow identity groups. With regard to responding to disinformation, relative to these other forms of social organization that Diamond identified, civil society actors benefit from a number of advantages: they are more able to rapidly innovate than governments, technology companies, or media organizations; they are closer to those most impacted by disinformation, more likely to understand its immediate impact, and better able to build trust with impacted communities; their grassroots, localized knowledge is critical to rebuking false narratives; and, unlike governments or political actors, many civil society groups are less likely to be perceived as having a vested interest in propagating or counteracting political disinformation. One important potential strength of civic organizations for responding to disinformation is their capacity to generate shared interests and goals between disparate identity groups. As disinformation often disproportionately (and often earlier) targets women and historically marginalized groups within specific contexts, CSOs or coalitions are often best placed to identify emerging campaigns early, and to generate awareness, mobilize opposition, or advocate responses broadly. By creating this sense of solidarity and shared interest, civic organizations are well placed not only to defend vulnerable groups from specific harms, but to increase the resilience to disinformation of society broadly, including members of groups who have not been historically vulnerable or marginalized. For all these reasons, civil society plays a critical role in the broader ecosystem for countering disinformation.
This chapter runs through a number of those interventions, details civil society’s advantages and disadvantages as it relates to each intervention and concludes with recommendations – many of which are pulled from those indicated throughout the chapter – as to how to support and strengthen civil society’s contributions to addressing disinformation.
1Diamond, Larry. “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation.” Journal of Democracy 5, no. 3 (1994): 4–17. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.1994.0041.
2 For applications of this concept to civil society, including criticisms, see for example, Ibid.; Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981; Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, 1994; Michael W. Foley, Bob Edwards. “Beyond Tocqueville: Civil Society and Social Capital in Comparative Perspective: Editors’ Introduction.” 1998.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002764298042001002; Berman, Sheri. “Civil Society and Political Institutionalization.” 1997.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002764297040005003.