Technology platforms are facing their biggest hurdle yet as they race to beat the fast-evolving forms of misinformation and disinformation perpetuated online. More pressing is the sophisticated technology deployed by mis/disinformation actors that make it increasingly difficult to detect and counter.
To address this, tech platforms have introduced a number of technological solutions including; removing and restricting false and misleading content; labeling unsubstantiated information; imposing forwarding limits, in the case of WhatsApp; and elevating authoritative sources to ensure that good information receives more visibility.
Amidst the myriad of technological efforts, there are obvious limitations in implementing technological solutions at scale to a challenge as enormous and cross-cutting as mis/disinformation. These limitations include low digital literacy rate, inefficiencies of algorithms and the inability of technological responses to catch up with the ever-evolving landscape of technologically aided media manipulation, among others.
Clearly, social media platforms must demonstrate evident commitments in addressing mis/disinformation and should invest adequately in their community standards. This would include introducing an authenticity and provenance infrastructure that would make it easier for users to detect manipulated media, particularly, AI generated media. This emphasizes the need for in-app verification tools to help users detect altered, recontextualised and recycled media. Also, there is the urgent need to train and retrain the algorithms to eliminate bias. This will help bolster the effective identification of misleading and harmful content that are context specific amongst other identifiable gaps.
While the outlined tech solutions are urgent and necessary, it is also important to recognise that mis/disinformation actors would likely attempt to subvert the gains of these technological solutions. This would potentially result in false and misleading information crowding out credible and reliable information.
At WITNESS, the communities we work with (including those from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and others) are telling us that there is a need to prioritise non-technological solutions to create and promote trusted, fact-based information to counter the proliferation of mis/disinformation. This was expressed during our West Africa convening of stakeholders on misinformation and disinformation where participants underscored the limitations of technological solutions in combating the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Participants at the convening further questioned the relevance of technological solutions at the grassroots level where there is low digital penetration and literacy.
“… Technological solutions in combating mis/disinformation are good but of what relevance are they when we do not necessarily interact with them? We have trusted communication channels within our communities which are effective.”
-participant from northern Nigeria
In parts of West Africa, the medium of mis/disinformation extends far beyond people with direct access to a smartphone or a digital device. The findings from the convening reveal strategic and coordinated offline mis/disinformation mechanisms that include the conscription of young people from within communities by influential groups to propagate false and sometimes harmful narratives. In some parts of Nigeria, they are referred to as ‘data boys’, ‘shekpe boys’ amongst other names depending on the community. Their primary responsibility is to spread pre-designed narratives in an organic manner, within the community. Examples of such strategic locations include motor parks, markets and pubs. This misleading information is however perceived as authentic and creates a deep seated conviction within communities. This is particularly profound because they are generated from known community members. Oftentimes, these harmful narratives have corresponding spread online. However, internet access and digital literacy in many rural communities that would have helped facilitate authentication/verification efforts, are lacking. This therefore necessitates the deployment of offline tactics for countering such mis/disinformation.
Within communities, there are people who are regarded as ‘verifiers’. These individuals have earned the trust of community members and are often consulted to verify suspicious narratives. However, they are no match to the conscripted mis/dis informers who are deliberate and consistent. Therefore, there is a need to identify these ‘verifiers’ and empower them with the necessary skills and knowledge to proactively combat mis/disinformation within their communities. The empowerment approach should prioritise sustainable transfer of knowledge from identified verifiers to other verifiers. The aim is for trained verifiers to train other would-be verifiers, in order to establish a verifier’s network within communities.
It is essential that trusted communication channels are identified within the communities and utilised for effective media literacy. These channels would differ from one community to another but could include religious institutions, trade unions, cultural and age grade groups, as well as community leaders. This is essential because most media literacy efforts, even when translated into indigenous languages or adapted to suit local contexts, are oftentimes disseminated via online media or other paid media sources. These do not often reach communities at the grassroots who have limited internet access, electricity or economic capacity to purchase and consume information via digital devices.
Community theatre has proved to be an effective means of communication for many, and has provided an opportunity for people to listen to opposing views and drive social change. Participants at the convening shared with us that in places where community theatre was deployed as a tool to challenge mis/disinformation, there was a significant rise in the levels of awareness. It was used as a strong mobilization force against peddlers of mis/disinformation. Also, the contributory nature of community theatre makes it possible for actors to remain radio towers of media literacy within the community even after the performance.
“… Storytelling is at the core of our socialization as Africans. It is the way we pass down knowledge and create social change. Community theatre is a great way through which we talk to each other and drive change in our community.”
-participant from Ghana.
Also, audio recorded messages are utilized extensively in grassroots communities to pass information and to foster indoctrination of ideologies. These recorded messages are played on loudspeakers in densely populated areas. They are difficult to ignore and have profound impact in shaping collective opinion. Some communities have used this channel to transmit anti-mis/disinformation messages. They are used in concert with community radio programmes, as radio remains hugely popular amongst grassroots communities. This therefore provides an avenue through which to disseminate trustworthy information.
Undoubtedly, coordinated action that brings together technological and non-technological tools can have a lasting effect on the information environment. There is a need to identify structures of mis/disinformation at the grassroots level, and re-engineer them to combat this threat. These structures are oftentimes non-technological, and it is important to disrupt and remodel them to support anti-mis/disinformation efforts.
The introduction of technological solutions including detection tools and specialised documentation apps, such as eyewitness to atrocity and proof mode, as solutions to counter mis/disinformation within grassroots communities, is also key. These technological solutions should be accompanied by the necessary expertise and resources to use them. A critical aspect for our work at WITNESS is advocating for equitable access to detection tools and capacity for those who need it most. It is crucial that tech developers take into cognisance the felt needs of communities at the grassroots to ensure inclusivity and reach.