Fighting information disorders with research
In today’s digital world, it is easier than ever for inaccurate information to spread quickly, potentially reaching millions of people in a shockingly short period of time. Social media platforms have been a major driving force of this phenomenon, the positive aspects of their egalitarian model balanced by the proliferation of false or misleading stories enabled by a lack of fact-checking mechanisms. Such misinformation, whether shared intentionally or unintentionally, makes it increasingly difficult to discern truth from fiction, and to identify credible sources. At the same time, it has become easier for malicious actors to propagate lies and disinformation.
Misinformation can take on many forms, from fabricated stories to manipulated videos or images with false captions.
It can be difficult to identify, as it is often designed to look like factual or legitimate news. Recent examples of this include false stories about the coronavirus pandemic that have caused widespread confusion and panic, false claims about election results that have led to civil unrest and division, and false information about public health that has caused people to make decisions that could be damaging to their health. Ultimately, these circumstances have resulted in an erosion of public trust in the institutions of science, media, and democracy themselves (Guerola-Navarro et al., 2; Thompson, 171). As Matthew d’Ancona (2017, 8) describes, there has been “a crash in the value of truth” – but like a currency or stock, it can and should bounce back.
In an age of compounding planetary crises, it is of the utmost importance that we take necessary steps to ensure that accurate information is made available and shared. Personal responsibility in checking the accuracy of the information we receive, understanding its context, remaining vigilant in evaluating its source, and being thoughtful in what we share play a part. However, researchers can help significantly by promoting new, insightful, reliable, and engaging knowledge, in the process encouraging people to question and verify what is true and what is false. As well as uncovering truths, evidence-based, analytical research serves as a model for people to learn how to identify good information by honing media and information literacy, thinking critically, and developing a spirit of inquiry (Guerola-Navarro et al., 2; Council of the European Union; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
In this way, universities and other research institutions can make an enormous contribution to combating the dissemination of harmful misinformation and promoting best practices. Academia can take a critical role in helping to create a more informed and educated global citizenry, one capable of formulating well-thought-out opinions and making sound decisions.
Add to this the personal engagement and shareability of video, and we have a recipe for success.
Council of the European Union, Council conclusions on media literacy in an ever-changing world (No. OJ C 193) (2020).
Matthew d’Ancona, Post-truth: The new war on truth and how to fight back (Random House, 2017).
Vicente Guerola-Navarro et al., “Media or information literacy as variables for citizen participation in public decision-making? A bibliometric overview,” Sustainable Technology and Entrepreneurship 2:1 (2023).
Gareth Thompson, “Public relations in a post-truth world,” The Routledge Companion to Public Relations (Routledge, 2022): 162-174.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Joint declaration on freedom of expression and ‘fake news’, disinformation and propaganda (2017).