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The Media, a Virus or Vaccine for correcting Information Disorder?

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By

Francis Sowa, Ph.D.

Lecturer 1,

Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone

Email: fsowa2007@yahoo.com, francis.sowa@usl.edu.sl

Abstract

The study examines the means and challenges of correcting Information Disorder. One of those means of correcting the menace is through the broadcasts and publications of traditional/mainstream media institutions. Journalism has been described as the greatest ally in combating Information Disorder and the best vaccine against disinformation. As seen in the literature, mainstream media news is expected to be based on facts and investigation with a focus on values such as authenticity, accountability, and autonomy. But, the reverse, as some studies point out, is that some mainstream media institutions have been complicit in disseminating misinformation and disinformation. The main research question for the study is: can the media be a ‘virus’ or a ‘vaccine’ in the information disorder ecosystem? The study’s objective is, therefore, to find out what role the media can play in correcting Information Disorder. Data were collected using in-depth interviews, surveys, and documentary/archival search analysis. The design is a mixed method or triangulation. The theoretical anchorages are Technological Determinism and its resultant constructs on misinformation and disinformation discourse, and Solutions Journalism. The study argues that any attempt to depend on the media as a means of overcoming information disorder will be fraught with the challenge of first inoculating the media to build immunity against the very virus called information disorder.  The study concludes that the media can be both the virus and the vaccine in the information disorder ecosystem. 

Keywords: Media, Vaccine, Virus, Information Disorder, Inoculation. 

Introduction 

Since the emergence of the media, members of society have largely depended on the media for information. The media perform the role of information dissemination based on certain ethos guiding their operations. The media’s presence and reach spread as technological inventions break new ground. That birth of the media, which was largely influenced by the invention of the printing press, has witnessed several other developments. From the analogue means of producing and transmitting information, the media institutions migrated into the digital arena. The transition was and is still made possible by the advent of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). The internet and the corresponding technologies have enhanced the flow of information and communication beyond mainstream media platforms. Through the advent of the internet, the ‘new media’ emerged. 

The new media showed no sign of relenting in terms of the change it has brought to the information and communication ecosystem. As a sign of its commitment to stay, the new media paved the way for the creation of social media platforms. With this, members of society then got an alternative means of accessing and exchanging information. It was no longer exclusively the mainstream media or, in the African context, indigenous communication channels, that controlled the information ecosystem. There were now alternatives in terms of getting information. As the USAID (2011) Disinformation Primer has observed, digital technology has supplanted many of the forms from which people traditionally obtained information. Consequently, the information ecosystem expanded and changed completely. 

The social media platforms were and are still intended to provide forum to articulate social issues. But, the power of the social media platforms were spotted and utilised within the information ecosystem for several other purposes. No sooner than expected, people realised that social media platforms had largely polluted the order which the information ecosystem once enjoyed. With the emergence of Information Disorder, complaints started growing about the ‘Information Disorder.’  The threats of Information Disorder have worsened as social media and internet use become more ubiquitous. While social media platforms may be widely accessible, they continue to be channels for disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information to spread (USAID, 2020). Powerful new technology makes the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by States, populist politicians, and dishonest corporate entities, as they are shared by uncritical publics (Ireton & Posett, 2018). The current situation runs contrary to what proponents of the internet imagined; an information utopia, in which information freely and easily shared, would yield tremendous benefits to society (Negroponte, Being Digital, 1995 cited in Helm and Nasu, 2021).  

Society later realised that there had always been a channel within the information ecosystem that largely maintained ‘order’ in the dissemination of information. Society turned again to the media. Alas, the media, it seemed, had also been affected by the same information disorder largely enhanced by the internet penetration and the utilisation of social media platforms. But these platforms are not a replacement for the institution of a democratic, free media (USAID, 2020). 

This study, therefore, chronicles the current debates on Information Disorder with specific reference to the argument on whether the media can be one of those means of correcting Information Disorder in a society, in which the media are already accused of being complicit in contributing to the very information disorder. The article’s objective of further illuminating the role the media can play in correcting Information Disorder is significant to enhancing efforts to reduce the havoc from information disorder. 

Situating the discourse 

Information Disorder

Information Disorder according to Claire Wardle, an expert on misinformation and disinformation refers to the current media climate and the ways in which the media ecosystem is polluted (Wardle, 2020). Information Disorder is a condition in which truth and facts coexist in a milieu of misinformation and disinformation—conspiracy theories, lies, propaganda, and half-truths. It has impacted nearly all facets of society as people of all ages are spending a significant amount of time-consuming and sharing content online (USAID, 2021, p. 7). Inherent in the term Information Disorder are the following concepts: misinformation and disinformation. The three overarching types- misinformation, disinformation and mal-information- are called information disorder (Wardle, 2019; Helm and Nasu (2021). Fake news overlaps with other information disorders (Lazer, D. et al, 2018).

Fake news

Different people have opposing views about the meaning of “fake news.” There is a real possibility that it means nothing and it is doing great harm (The Conversation, cited in Habgood-Coote, 2018). In the words of assistant director-general of communication and information at UNESCO, Frank La Rue, fake news is a bad term primarily because it is a trap. It is not news. Just the term generates mistrust of the press and of the work of journalists (Dema, 2017).  It is fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent (Lazer, D. et al, 2018).

As argued by many authors, the term ‘fake news’ has been coined and promoted for political purposes. Political leaders have started using the term to discredit and attack professional journalism. When journalists use ‘fake news’ in their reporting, they are giving legitimacy to an unhelpful and increasingly dangerous phrase ((Dema, 2017; Wardle, 2019, p. 7) ‘Fake news’ is not used in this article. Information Disorder (and its types) offers an alternative to the term “fake news” and those terms are used throughout the article. 

Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information

Misinformation is false or misleading information (Lazer, D. et al, 2018; Helm & Nasu, 2021). It is a type of information disorder in which the false information is not intended to cause harm. The individuals spreading the information may not realise that it is false or misleading. They may even think that they are helping by sharing the information (Wardle & Derakshan, 2017; Wardle, 2019; Shorenstein Center, 2018). The person disseminating the misinformation may believe that it is true (Ireton and Posett, 2018). 

Disinformation is false information that is deliberately created and purposely disseminated with the specific purpose of deceiving people. It is intentionally false and designed to cause harm (Wardle, 2019, Shorenstein Center, 2018); Lazer et al, 2018; Helm and Nasu, 2021). The person who is disseminating disinformation knows it is false. It is an intentional lie and targets people being actively disinformed by malicious actors (Ireton and Posett, 2018). Producers of disinformation typically have political, financial, psychological, or social motivations (Wardle & Derakshan, 2017). 

Mal-information describes genuine information based on reality that is shared with the intent to cause harm to a person, organisation or country (Wardle, 2019; Ireton & Posett, 2018). It is a type of information disorder that is about the deliberate publication of private information taken out of context for personal or private interest, as well as the deliberate manipulation of genuine content. Such information is based on reality but is usually disseminated to cause harm (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017, USAID, 2021).

The definitions show that while the three concepts are forms of information disorder, they are different in terms of the purposes they seek to achieve.  The major distinction revolves around falsity, knowledge and intent. For instance, disinformation has all three elements falsity, knowledge and intent. The person spreading knows that it is false and seeks to achieve a particular purpose. With misinformation, the information is false, but the person spreading it may not know that it is false, and has no intent to create any harm. While mal-information is not false, it can be spread with the intent to cause harm.  

The media 

The term media as used in this article, refers to radio and television stations and newspapers in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has a long history of media presence dating as far back as January 1801 when George Ross printed the Sierra Leone Gazette on Freetown’s first printing press. The country also ranked among the pioneers of radio broadcasting in the continent, with the rediffusion service introduced in Freetown in 1934, the first in British West Africa (Cole, 1995, p.1). There are over 400 registered media institutions, according to the data of Independent Media Commission (IMC) 2021. About half of those media institutions are operational. There is at least one radio station in each of the 16 political districts in the country.

Media and Information Disorder

This article considers all three forms of information disorder highlighted as things the media should guard against in their work, help people to understand and take the necessary precautions against them. This is because one of the reasons information disorder is on the rise includes the erosion of trust in institutions, especially government and media institutions (2020 Edelman Trust Barometer). In addition, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists, with 59% of respondents in 28 countries saying that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false (Ireton & Posett, 2018). As Lewandowsky et al (2012) put it, although the media seek to inform the public, it is notable that they are particularly prone to spreading misinformation for systemic reasons that are worthy of analysis and exposure. The article fulfils that role by analysing media’s role in the information disorder ecosystem and proffering ideas that will expose them to ways of addressing misinformation, disinformation and mal-information.

According to Deloire (2021), journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation.  The ‘Reporters Without Borders’ Secretary-General added that in response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts. Usman (2021), quoting the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ statement on the 2021 World Press Freedom Day notes that free and independent journalism can be the greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. 

Theoretical framework 

One of the theoretical anchorages of this study is ‘Technological Determinism (TD). It revolves around the ideas that technology has important effects on people’s lives. In the words of Adler (2006), Technological Determinism is the belief that technology is the principal initiator of society’s transformation. The emergence of this theory is usually attributed to the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who formulated the causal link between technology and  society. The communications theorist and media scholar, Marshall McLuhan, laid out one famous example of technological determinism in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He asserted that “the medium is the message”(Mardiana and Daniels, 2019). 

McLuhan’s theoretical postulation is apt for this study because of the discourse that new forms of media transform (massage) people’s experience of themselves and their society, and this influence is ultimately more important than the content that is transmitted in its specific messages—technology determines experience. He used the term global village to refer to the new form of social organization that would inevitably emerge as instantaneous electronic media tied the entire world into one great social, political, and cultural system (Baran & Davis, 2012, p. 231). This is exactly the point at issue. Technology has played a role in creating or enhancing the platforms for both traditional and mainstream media institutions. They have now become the ‘medium’ and largely regarded as the ‘message’ other than the actual contents they produce. In other words, just the fact that a piece of information emanated from a medium suffices- not necessarily the content itself, those changes in communication technology have inevitably produced profound changes in both culture and social order (Baran and Davis, 2012). That is the information disorder society currently suffers from. It is a product of technology. It is for such reason that supporters of technological determinism point out that social changes are controlled by the technology, technological development, communications technology and media (Hauer, 2017).

Owing to the fact that the media are perceived as being part of the very problem, there is a need to find solution to that problem already created. This brings in the concept of ‘solution journalism.’ Solutions Journalism is “rigorous and compelling reporting on responses to social problems” (Solutions Journalism Network 2017) and it is reporting done with the highest of journalistic standards (Bansal and Martin, 2015). It is a concept pioneered by the ‘The Solutions Journalism Network’ created in 2013. Solutions journalism is reporting about responses to entrenched social problems. It examines instances where people, institutions, and communities are working toward solutions (Curry and Hammonds, n.d.). In the view of Bansal and Martin (2015), the job of journalists is to hold up an accurate mirror to society and if they fail to cover the many ways people and institutions are trying to solve problems — successful or not — they fail to do their jobs. Solution journalism fits into the contextual function of journalism because it seeks to add information beyond the immediate issue at hand. It goes beyond the “who, what, when, where” that often defines the problem and focuses on trying to point out what are people doing about it (McIntyre, Dahmen & Abdenour, 2016, Lough and McIntyre, 2018, p.33). Solution-oriented reporting pushes journalists to think about the social responsibility of the press and questions whether they consider society’s best interest in their daily thought processes and habits (Lough and McIntyre, 2018). The strongest solutions journalism stories use the rigor of investigative reporting to explore systemic, underlying reasons for social ills and then critically examine efforts to address them (Wenzel, Gerson and Moreno (n.d)).

Solutions journalism is apt for this study because information disorder has become an entrenched social problem. Therefore, the approach requires media institutions to work towards providing solutions to that problem. The solution fits into what this articles addresses; the role the media can play in correcting the information disorder. There is also an emphasis on the media performing that role with reference to the highest journalistic standards (ethical considerations). 

Methods 

The study used in-depth interviews, survey and documentary/archival search analysis to collect and analyse information.  The design is a mixed method or triangulation. The population for the study mainly comprised students at Mass Communication Department at Fourah Bay College, CSOs, and civil and public servants estimated at 25,000. Using the sample size calculator, the sample size is 384. For the survey, 380 survey questionnaires were completed out of the 384 administered online. About 30 per cent of the respondents were journalists while the remaining 70% were CSOs, civil and public servants, and students. The questionnaires were administered in October 2021.  The data were analysed and presented based on the research questions and objectives. Six key informant interviews were conducted with academics, civil society organisations and senior media practitioners. The responses from the interviewees were transcribed and used to develop into narratives relating to the study. Reports and documents on information disorder were also collected and analysed.  

Results and discussions 

The results are based on the study’s research question and objective on whether the media can be a vaccine or a virus in the Information Disorder ecosystem, and what role the media can play in correcting the Information Disorder.

The Media- a virus

The study’s first interrogated the media’s position within the debate on whether they are indeed part of the virus in the Information Disorder ecosystem. The indicators used were to ascertain if the media produce, spread or contribute to misinformation and disinformation are detailed below. The data show that the respondents’ considered the media (radio, television and newspaper) as institutions producing false or misleading information as indicated by 46.6 per cent (‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’) of the respondents. This percentage may appear smaller as compared to the 51 per cent that strongly disagreed and agreed that the media institutions do so. But it is a worrisome trend that almost half of the respondents held that view. It is the quest of the traditional media to compete with the online news platform in terms of who is first to put out the news that had led to the disruption of the traditional media landscape. Online news platforms have disrupted the traditional media landscape (USAID, 2021). Kallon (2021) pointed out that part of the problem is that the traditional media have integrated with the online media to an extent that line is now blurred between traditional and online media. Konneh (2021) confirmed newspapers have taken contents from her platforms and published without cross-checking them.  This is technological determinism at play. The technology has created the new media platforms which have had important effects on people’s lives. The Technological Determinism theory has initiated the society’s transformation (Adler, 2006). The transformation has, however, created negative impacts on society. The danger with the media producing false and misleading information is that it confirms what the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer notes to be among the reasons information disorder is on the rise and a source of  the erosion of trust in media institutions. 

Table 1: Media (radio, television and newspaper) produce false or misleading information.  

ResponsesFrequencyPer cent
Strongly Agree359.2
Agree14036.8
Neutral113.0
Disagree16543.4
Strongly Disagree297.6
Total380100
Source: Field data, September/October 2021

The respondents were further asked about whether the media spread misinformation and disinformation. Here, there is an increase in the combined response percentages for the categories for ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’ which is 56.8 per cent. This figure represents more than half of the respondents. What this implies is that where 46.6 per cent of the respondents are of the view that the media  produce false or misleading information, 56.8 per cent are of the opinion that the media institutions spread misinformation and disinformation even where they would not have produced them. 

Table 2: Media (radio, television and newspaper) spread misinformation and disinformation. 

ResponsesFrequencyPer cent
Strongly Agree4612.1
Agree17044.7
Neutral82.1
Disagree13034.2
Strongly Disagree266.8
Total380100
Source: Field data, September/October 2021

The data above run contrary to the assertion that mainstream media news is expected to be based on facts and investigation and focused on values such as authenticity, accountability, and autonomy (Hayes et al.). However, as the data confirm, the reverse is that some mainstream media institutions have been complicit in disseminating misinformation and disinformation (ibid). Though the media are, by definition, seeking to inform the public, it is notable that they are particularly prone to spreading misinformation (Lewandowsky et al 2012). The interviewees stated that in Sierra Leone from the outbreak of Ebola virus in 2014, the mudslide in 2017, the General Elections in 2018, outbreak of Corona virus in 2019 and the vaccines rollout to present day political events, there have been instances where some media institutions published and broadcast misinformation, mal-information and disinformation. Examples of instances in which the media have spread misinformation and disinformation are seen in political issues/debates/discussions, elections and health emergencies. They include stories that ‘Covid-19 is not real’ and ‘announcements of fake elections results.’ One popular hoax that attracted massive public attention during the Ebola era was the unsubstantiated claim of the potent ability of bathing with salt water to prevent oneself from the virus. Another was information that children were being vaccinated with COVID-19 at a time the country had not recorded any such case. That led to the death of a woman who got heart attack while she rushed to the school to pick up her child.

Some radio programmes, according to the respondents have been “relying on hearsay” in doing programmes. As one interviewee puts it, “one of the greatest ways the media (radio and television in particular) spread misinformation and disinformation is by reading text messages verbatim as posted on their social media platforms or during phone calls from the audience.” The researcher has observed that while the trend of receiving and broadcasting information from those platforms opens up the democratic space by guaranteeing freedom of expression, the very access granted to the audience for participation in those programmes is to a certain degree counterproductive. This is because people have used those platforms to pass on misinformation, mal-information and disinformation. From the author’s experience, some radio stations read messages with disinformation, misinformation or mal-information or allow callers to involve in such actions  during their phone-in segments on the mistaken belief that they are doing so for the “authorities or those concerned to confirm or correct it and/or address it.” Such a pattern is also seen in publications of some newspapers who a respondent stated “are notorious for publishing all sorts of false information, misinformation, mal-information and disinformation, mainly because of their political or business interests.” The narratives constructed from the interviews and survey show that media institutions have propagated both misinformation and disinformation in the name of providing balanced reporting. It becomes prominent when it has to do with political reporting, wherein media houses with bias towards a certain political interest have amplified their views even when they are calculated to deceive the public.  Suma (2021) agreed that misinformation and disinformation have influenced mainstream media, but emphasized that editorial independence has made it less impactful.

The next table shows the specific role of individual journalists (not the media institutions) in spreading misinformation and disinformation. Here, 56.7 per cent of the respondents strongly agreed and agreed with the statement that journalists contribute to the spread misinformation and disinformation

Table 3: Journalists contribute to the spread of misinformation and disinformation. 

ResponsesFrequencyPer cent
Strongly Agree4110.7
Agree17446.0
Neutral61.5
Disagree13435.2
Strongly Disagree256.6
Total380100
Source: Field data, September/October 2021

The data above correspond with the USAID (2020) study that as the spread of disinformation online grows and even reputable news agencies have mistakenly shared false information (USAID, 2021). This may be a reduction in the level of trust in terms of the role the media play in spreading misinformation and disinformation. A study on Information Pollution Mapping in Sierra Leone undertaken in 2020 had 65.1 per cent of the respondents’ indication that journalists are their most trusted sources of information. Wright (2020) notes that some of the media practitioners are lazy, arguing that journalists find it easy for them to just take something online and start running with it in mainstream media institutions. The new media have brought ease of access to information and at the same time influencing the content within the traditional media. Karimu (2021) adds that the media can also be part of the problem because sometimes journalists do not crosscheck their stories, get facts and they put out information that is not accurate. In such instance, they contribute to misinformation. Journalists might contribute to the spread of disinformation when they skip some stage of information processing and reproduce false or misleading information (Himma-Kadakas cited in Soares & Recuero, 2021).

Media the vaccine

As stated above, a major objective of this article is to further illuminate the role the media can play in correcting Information Disorder. This, the author believes, is significant to enhancing efforts to reduce the havoc from Information Disorder. Both wealthy and developing countries have struggled to adapt to the large amounts and variety of misinformation and disinformation circling on the internet (USAID, 2021). This is arguably whey the media should add to that already large volume of misinformation and disinformation on the internet.

Table 4: Media (radio, television and newspaper) are the best vaccine against misinformation and disinformation. 

ResponsesFrequencyPer cent
Strongly Agree9224.2
Agree24263.7
Neutral20.5
Disagree328.4
Strongly Disagree123.2
Total380100
Source: Field data, September/October 2021

The data show that majority of the respondents (87.9% ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’) that the media/journalism is the best vaccine against misinformation and disinformation. Only 11.6 per cent of the respondents strongly disagreed and disagreed that the media can be that vaccine misinformation and disinformation. All the interviewees stated that the media have played a key role in correcting the information disorder, particularly during the COVID-19 outbreak. As Turay (2021) puts it, in the world of misinformation, the media have played a crucial role in ensuring that information on the number of confirmed cases of infection, deaths, among others are accurate. The television stations, for example, have been displaying updates from the health authorities to ensure people get the correct statistics all the time. In the words of Samba-Sesay (2021), the media in Sierra Leone have been outstanding as the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) was the first outfit to raise awareness on the virus and its effects. The media especially electronic have been the ‘fact-checker’ and have kept Sierra Leoneans with real-time visual information and created awareness on the opportunities and facilities available to combat the spread. Nasralla (2021) notes that SLAJ’s media engagements, particularly its radio programmes both during the outbreak of Ebola and COVID-19 have served as a ‘clearing house to counter misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.’ In his words “the public now depends or look up to the traditional media for credible and correct information on every activity around COVID-19. The researcher notes that this is an encouraging trend that should the media should leverage on and extend to reporting on other issues, particularly politics and elections.

The final table further confirmed the assertion that the media are a vaccine against misinformation and disinformation.  The respondents, 95.2 per cent strongly agreed and agreed that free and independent media/journalism is the greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. The data allude to Marshall McLuhan’s famous example of technological determinism that “the medium is the message.” The respondents’ views show that it is the media rather than the content can be the best vaccine against misinformation and disinformation. They placed more importance on the media than the content. The reasons are obvious. Members of society generally do not expect misinformation and disinformation from mainstream media. Social media platforms have long been accredited with the production and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation. There is a huge presence of radio stations across the country; television stations in the regional headquarter towns, and newspapers mainly in the capital, Freetown. This is a key factor that makes the media to be a vaccine and the greatest ally in combating the information disorder in the country. As the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer puts it, journalistic pluralism and rigorous reporting serve to combat disinformation and “infodemics,” including false and misleading information. Based on findings in the Information Pollution Mapping in Sierra Leone 2020, the most popular source of information was identified by the respondents as Radio (82.3%). That data confirm earlier studies undertaken by Fondation Hirondelle and BBC Media Action which stated that radio is the most popular means of getting information in the country. This is a clear manifestation that just the effective and proper use of radio can contribute greatly in addressing misinformation and disinformation in the country. In comparison to all other forms of the media (traditional and social alike), radio remains the most popular, most accessible and most used with 81% of the population having access to it, 47% listening to it on a daily basis, with 84% of males and 78% of females having access to it (BBC Media Action, 2018).

Table 5: Free and independent media/journalism is the greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. 

ResponsesFrequencyPer cent
Strongly Agree10226.8
Agree26068.4
Neutral41.1
Disagree123.2
Strongly Disagree20.5
Total380100
                                          Source: Field data, September/October 2021

A detailed examination of the data above  shows that while some media institutions are either producing or spreading misinformation and disinformation, there a still a level of trust and confidence that the media can also be a vaccine and ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. For instance in even Table 1 above, 51 per cent strongly disagreed that media (radio, television and newspaper) produce false or misleading information. This is a tacit approval of the fact that the media can be a vaccine and ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. The same applies to Table 2 in which 41 per cent of the respondents stated that the media do not spread misinformation and disinformation. Specifically, 95.2 believed that free and independent media/journalism is the greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation. This public trust in the mainstream media in the media to perform the role of combating misinformation and disinformation is something to leverage on. Bolstering local journalism is key to countering and preventing disinformation (USAID, 2021, p. 49). A major research undertaken by the United Nations and the International Center for Journalists cited quality journalism as a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation (Posetti and Bontcheva, 2020). As Spencer (2021) puts it, if the media are bent on putting out factual and balanced news stories, then that should help reduce the impact of misinformation because when people trust the traditional media, they will always go there to verify information. Kargbo (2021) points out that the media are a ‘double edged sword’ which can be used either to cure or to destroy. When they are used to disseminate accurate and balanced information to society, then they are used positively, but when they are used as a platform to spread misinformation, then they are used in the negative form.”

Good quality local journalism is the key to fighting false news and noxious.  As Alan Rusbridger former editor of the Guardian and Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism sums it up “against evasion and lies, good journalism is all we have.” (Bell, 2019)  As advocated by the Knight Foundation, one of the best forms of resilience against mis- and disinformation is journalism (Cheung & Sands 2020). One cannot fight disinformation with disinformation. It can be back with the truth and good reporting (Ortega 2017). Dema (2017) puts it this: “This is a crucial moment when we have to defend journalism. We have to promote a journalism of honesty, a journalism that is seen to build the truth.” 

The data above show that the media are both a virus and vaccine within the information disorder ecosystem. However, the main aim of the study is to find out what role the media can play in correcting the Information Disorder, using Sierra Leone as a case study.

What role can the media play in correcting information disorder?

The following recommendations can help prepare and position the media to correct information disorder.  

Inoculate the media- discipline of verification

This study argues that any attempt to depend on the media as a means to correct the information disorder will be fraught with the challenge of first inoculating the media to build immunity against the very virus called information disorder.  The media should be inoculated with ‘vaccine of verification.’ As Kovach and Rosenstiel (2007) have observed, the essence of journalism is that it is “a discipline of verification. The authors posit that “while there is no standardized code as such, every journalist uses certain methods to assess and test information to “get it right.” This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other forms of communication such as propaganda, advertising, fiction, or entertainment (Kovach & Rosenstiel (2007). Verification is a process that evaluates the veracity of a story before it becomes ‘the news’ (Mantzarlis, 2015).  

The inoculation process can adopt the Linden and Roozenbeek typology. The authors drew from the inoculation theory, a psychological framework from the 1960s that aims to induce pre-emptive resistance against unwanted persuasion attempts. They reasoned that just as the administration of a weakened dose of a virus (the vaccine) triggers antibodies in the immune system to fight off future infection, pre-emptively exposing people to weakened examples of common techniques that are used in the production of fake news would generate ‘mental antibodies.’ Linden and Roozenbeek (2019) analysed the inoculation typology only at the level of the audience.  The media should be exposed to the “weakened examples” of the information disorder virus- unverified information and the various techniques that are used to stop them. The vaccine, verification, would generate the ‘professional antibodies’ to fight misinformation and disinformation. When the media are fully inoculated, they can play a role in the information ecosystem. There may be vaccine hesitancy; some of them will claim that they do not need to be inoculated, but they should.

The study, therefore, recommends that national media organisations and media institutions should develop ‘verification schemes’ akin to the Poynter Institute’s Verification Handbook that outlines guides to online search and research techniques for using User Generated Content and open source information in investigations. Through simulation exercise on information disorder, the media can learn how to use verification techniques to address them. 

Regular testing-Fact-checking- like any normal epidemic or pandemic, the vaccines could have been taken, but it does not stop the reoccurrence of the disease when one is exposed to the virus without prevention. Similarly, the media could have been inoculated, but the virus causing the information disorder may still be around. There is always a need for regular testing- otherwise engaging in fact-checking. Prior to the advent of technology that has further polluted the information ecosystem; journalistic principles have always emphasized the need to ‘check’, ‘crosscheck’ and recheck information before broadcasting or publishing them. However, over the years there has been journalistic backsliding from those basic tenets of journalism. With the increased harm caused by the pollution of the information ecosystem, there is now a clarion call to engage in fact-checking- a term that shares similarities with journalistic concepts. 

Fact-checking (in the context of information disorder) is the process of determining the truthfulness and accuracy of official, published information such as politicians’ statements and news reports (Shorenstein Center, 2018 cited in USAID 2011). Fact-checking is a process that occurs post publication and compares an explicit claim made publicly against trusted sources of facts (Mantzarlis, 2015). The rise of social media use and online content creation information has resulted in a media-saturated world, one that requires a fairly high level of critical thinking from users and consumers— i.e., digital literacy and media literacy (USAID, 2021). There is low digital literacy level in society, including of media practitioners on information disorder.  Fact-checking is non-existent in majority of the media institutions. However, steps are being taken to address the issue. There is some of fact-checking in the country done by the Initiatives for Media Development and the DUBAWA- a fact-checking project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism. But journalists have to be trained on doing it. Bah-Sowe (2021) believed that fact-checking will be effective in tackling misinformation and disinformation. The speed with which people share false information, a fact-checking system will help to provide an avenue to crosscheck the authenticity of the information. 

The study, therefore, recommends the development of a curriculum on Digital Literacy and Information Disorder with specific attention on fact-checking. The curriculum should take into consideration the content-specific issues within regions and countries in the world. This should   be followed by massive training of all media institutions on Information Disorder with specific reference to fact-checking and Media Information Literacy. The approach to training few journalists will not help. There has to be a global, regional and national approach to building capacity on fact-checking. The study also recommends that such training and capacity building should be informed by baseline data giving an indication of their state of knowledge on information disorder.

Stay at home- Take Precautionary Measure- Embrace ethical considerations

The ‘home’ here refers to the journalistic abode of adherence to professional standards and ethics.  It is evident that strong ethical journalism is needed as an alternative, and antidote, to the contamination of the information environment and the spill-over effect of tarnishing of news more broadly (Ireton & Posett, 2018). It is a time for news media to adhere  more closely to professional standards and ethics, to eschew the publishing of unchecked information, and to take a distance from information which may interest some part of  the public but which is not in the public interest (Ireton & Posett, 2018). In view of the ethical challenges facing the media, the study recommends the development and/or review of existing codes of ethics/conduct/practice to reflect the challenges posed by the information disorder. The existing media codes are generic. There have been to reflections on the codes of ethics to include scenarios and examples of ethical dilemmas on the current challenges posed by the information disorder and suggestions on how address them. 

Engage in preventive measures-Practice Solutions-Based journalism 

The media can be a vaccine by practising solutions Journalism. Information Disorder is a societal problem. The media have a role to play through its programming, content generation and dissemination. The study recommends that the media should engage in “rigorous and compelling reporting on responses to information disorder which is clearly a social problem affecting society (Solutions Journalism Network 2017).  The media have to engage in reporting on information disorder with the highest of journalistic standards (Bansal and Martin, 2015). The media have to provide responses to entrenched social problems of information disorder (Curry and Hammonds).  

Spencer (2021) points out that the media need to be professional and research stories properly and accurately. When the people understand that the traditional media put out accurate and balanced stories, they will go to the traditional media for factual stories and not social media. Kargbo (2021) also agrees that one of the ways which the media can correct information disorder is to be more professional in carrying out their responsibilities to the public. He adds that this means that the traditional media have to engage in more trainings to strengthen their capacity in order to challenge the social media contents by reporting factual, accurate and balanced information in order to build their credibility and integrity pursuant to which the public will always rely on to verify their information for proper decision making in society. The respondents state that the role the media can play in correcting misinformation and disinformation include by verifying stories before they are published or broadcast; upholding the accuracy principles; trying to check and to cross-check information prior to publication and broadcast;  fact-checking; engaging in proper sourcing of information; providing timely, accurate and correct information;, abiding by codes of practice/conduct/ethics, providing constant public education on information disorder; engaging in thorough research and balanced presentation of news and information; avoiding the practice of publishing unverified information and material sourced from social media platforms; and maintaining and performing proper gatekeeping roles.

The USAID Disinformation Primer summarises the role the media can play in correcting the information disorder in the following ways: ‘Collaborate; Agree policies on strategic silence; Ensure strong ethical standards across all media; Debunk sources as well as content; Produce more news literacy segments and features; Tell stories about the scale and threat posed by information disorder; Focus on improving the quality of headlines and Do not disseminate fabricated content (USAID, 2021, p. 45).

Conclusion

The study has examined the roles and functions of the media as one of the means and challenges of correcting Information Disorder. Data were collected, using in-depth interviews, survey and documentary/archival search analysis. The literature shows that poor quality journalism sometimes allows disinformation and misinformation to originate in or leak into the real news system.  But journalism is also regarded as the greatest ally in combating Information Disorder. The Technological Determinism (TD) theory used in the study illustrated the effects of technology on people’s lives. McLuhan’s proclamation that the “medium is the message is seen to true in that the media institutions are conceived as the very message spreading misinformation and disinformation. While the results confirmed that the media can be a virus by way publishing and broadcasting misinformation and disinformation, but also a vaccine in correcting the information disorder. The results show that the trust in the media is somewhat high even if it has declined in some section of the media. Media houses and national organisation should leverage and capitalize on that trust and take necessary steps to guide and guard their profession. As seen above, the vaccine of verification would not stop the media from contracting the virus of information disorder. Like the COVID-19 virus, the ‘infodemic’ or information disorder, mutates. There are different variants of the information disorder, including misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 

The study notes that society is into a ‘long run and route’ with information disorder. The results of the study confirmed the study’s argument that that any reliance on the media to be  a means of correcting information disorder first requires an inoculation of the media to build immunity against the very virus called information disorder.  Therefore, like the vaccine trials, a number of approaches should be utilised to address the issue of information disorder. The study, therefore, recommended an inoculation of the media with the vaccine of verification as the first step in ensuring that the media serve as a means of correcting the information disorder. The study also recommends effective fact-checking, adherence to ethical standards and principles and the practice of Solutions Journalism as key steps towards addressing the information disorder.  Finally, the study recommends that Solutions Journalism should be adopted to engage in compelling reporting on responses to the social problems posed by information disorder. 

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