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, especially the protection of free expression and free association for marginalized groups 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, given that these responses themselves may ultimately be used disproportionately to undermine the democratic rights of marginalized groups.
Government responses, can – in the worst instances – include social media or internet shutdowns, heavy-handed regulation of online speech, or criminalization of certain types of online activity, all of which can backfire by infringing on civil liberties or exacerbating political inequity. Civil society thus serves not only as a useful counteractive force to those potential outcomes, but also as a space in which policy, technical, or social interventions can be tested, socialized, and iterated before being subject to scale. Civil society is also unburdened with another challenge that governments have: given the often political nature of disinformation, and its utilization by political actors, incumbent governments often lack the real and perceived neutrality to ensure that responses are seen as fair, rather than as an attempt to undermine an opposition that may well be the principal beneficiary of disinformation.
Saudi Arabia threatened citizens and residents spreading rumors and fake news with five years jail sentence and hefty fines sending a strong signal following the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. In the same year, Ugandan officials introduced a "social media tax" that requires users to pay 200 Ugandan shillings a day to access specific online and social media platforms to tackle online gossip. In Belarus, the parliament passed a law allowing the persecution of citizens who spread fake news. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and its partners have been the forefront of advocacy and policy reform efforts to support freedom of speech and to counter censorship efforts in places like South Africa and Bolivia where leaders use disinformation as an excuse to jail journalists amid fears over the COVID-19 pandemic.