Ours is an age of misinformation and disinformation. From spin and marketing to ‘gaslighting’ and deliberate mistruths, delivered via a range of media from radio and tv, to social media and messaging apps. While misinformation and disinformation have long been used as a tool in politics to promote or challenge a particular point of view there is increasing evidence that democracy and democratic institutions at a global, national and local level are under increasing threat as a result of the scale and pace at which misinformation can spread as a result of these technologies.
Since the Coronavirus pandemic, the places that people get their news has changed with more than a third of those aged between 16 and 64 using social media to keep in touch with the news. Recent analysis by OFCOM, suggests that for UK teenagers, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are the most popular sources of news. Along with social media platforms’ algorithmically-driven infrastructure which drives polarisation in public discourse, the disinformation can be spread both rapidly and widely.
The overwhelming majority of disinformation is shared through social media channels. While it is the case that social media companies have put in place protocols for dealing with disinformation such as Meta’s (Facebook and Instagram) policy of tackling ‘inauthentic behaviour’ and Twitter’s ‘platform manipulation’ policy, the bar for action to be taken is set very high and anything that is contested is unlikely to be taken down. Council may therefore want to develop a range of tools and techniques for proactively and reactively tackling disinformation.
Proactive approaches include pre-bunking (anticipating and warning of potential disinformation attacks), awareness-raising using simple story-telling, slogans or humour and using trusted individuals to deliver messages. Reactive approaches such as debunking or rebutting disinformation, or developing stories to communicate complex or abstract ideas. At its most serious, disinformation can be extremely damaging in terms of reputation local authority or the operation of services. In such situations, a crisis communication approach may be appropriate.
The spread of disinformation through the growth of digital and social media presents novel challenges for local authorities, particularly as more and more people are sourcing their news via these channels. Though in most cases public opinion will self-correct or false information can be dealt with relatively easily and swiftly, there are sometimes real world consequences of disinformation campaigns for councils. Going forward, developing a toolbox of techniques as well as learning from previous experiences and communications during the COVID-19 pandemic will help mitigate the worst impacts.
Check out our full member-only briefing Fact or Fake? Tackling misinformation and disinformation.
Explore our our Communications Essentials training curriculum that tackles these issues and more.