The Covid-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Heightened emotions, widespread reliance on rapidly changing information, social isolation and more people online for longer led to mass uncertainty and information overload during the pandemic.
This uncertainty prompted people to seek clear and comforting information, no matter how reliable it may have been. The sheer volume of information also made it difficult for people who genuinely wanted to find trustworthy information to access it.
As municipalities direct their focus towards recovery from the pandemic, councillors and officers are still dealing with the ongoing consequences of this far-reaching misinformation and disinformation online and offline. False information around Covid-19 vaccine side effects, new technologies and elections will need to be addressed by the level of government closest to communities for the foreseeable future.
Misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena. Prominent examples date back to the Middle Ages and beyond. However, what is new is that social media has made the speed and distance that false information can spread so much greater.
What do misinformation and disinformation mean today?
Misinformation refers to verifiably false information that is not spread maliciously or with an intention to mislead, as defined by the UK Government Communication Service. By contrast, disinformation refers to verifiably false information that is spread deliberately with an intention to deceive and mislead, whether seeking to manipulate public events or capitalise on an agenda.
There is sometimes an overlap between misinformation and disinformation. The spread of false information may be started maliciously and continued ignorantly or vice versa.
A further category of malinformation refers to true or partially true information that is twisted or taken out of context in a deliberately misleading way to support false interpretations.
People working in local government need to be aware of the characteristics of misinformation and disinformation in order to manage the potential impacts on their communities, including how false information may affect residents’ trust in local authorities.
Features of false information presented online may include emotive language and narratives, fabricated websites falsely claiming to represent governments or businesses, and images and videos that are fraudulently altered, constructed or decontextualized.
Increasing numbers of people keep up to date with news through social media, community groups and citizen journalism rather than traditional media sources. Traditional gatekeepers have been replaced by algorithms, which drive people towards accounts with similar interests and views to them. The line between supportive group and echo chamber can easily become hazy on social media. Newspapers, news sites and broadcasters will usually do fact-checking, retractions and apologies, whereas information is less likely to be verified or withdrawn on social media.
Social media and citizen journalism can also have significant benefits, including giving a voice to people who were otherwise excluded and bringing communities together. However, it is increasingly important for councillors and officers to understand how the algorithms driving these websites and apps work, in order to ensure their messages are seen and address related problems.
What can local governments do to tackle the spread of false information?
Combatting disinformation online is complex. There is no single fix – to suggest that there is would be an example of false information in itself. While councils do not have the power or influence to stop the circulation of misinformation entirely, they can work hard to create a trusted positive narrative that helps to reduce the impact of false information.
Local authorities can use their platforms to present accurate, fair and open messaging about key issues as a counter-narrative to misinformation. Councils can make the most of the trust that many community members have in them and engage calmly and clearly with local residents, without getting into arguments with them.
Local authorities can create effective informative content, such as videos featuring trusted and diverse community members, to cut through the noise.
This blog introduces some of the insights from LGIU’s online training session on ‘Tackling Disinformation Online and Offline.’ The session highlights what works to combat misinformation and disinformation, showcases best practice case studies and invites participants to share local challenges and solutions within the privacy of the session.
The next online training session on ‘Tackling Disinformation Online and Offline’ will take place on 4 February 2022. Click here to find out more and sign up. For more information about this or any other training session, please contact Barry O’Brien, Learning & Development Co-ordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s Global Local Recap focuses on managing misinformation and disinformation at a local level. Click here to find out more about our free, weekly newsletter showcasing global innovation.