Disinformation Online Starts and Ends at the Local Level

How we can take back the truth

Key Takeaways

  • The spread of disinformation happens on the internet between our local communities and people we trust. 
  • Disinformation is intentional and harmful to society. 
  • To stop disinformation, we have to articulate what we want, and we have to start talking to each other outside of social media.
A person looking at news on two computer screens and three smart phones.
 Bill Hinton / Getty Images

Disinformation is hiding in plain sight around every corner of the internet, even in the places we trust. However, the solution could be much more scaled-down, experts say. The answer is to start local. 

As part of the Week of Action Against Disinformation hosted by MediaJustice and the Disinfo Defense League, dozens of civil rights and racial justice organizations came together to discuss topics like disinformation and social media justice.  Especially with an historical election happening next week, disinformation has become more important to discuss in terms of what it is, where it comes from, and how we prevent it. 

"All disinformation is local, and the future and the solution is local as well," said Roberta Rael, the Executive Director of Generation Justice, during a virtual conversation on Friday.

Disinformation: What It Is and How It’s Spread 

These days, we have the world at our fingertips. Social media and other technologies have made it possible, but it’s now even easier to spread false information. Experts say this disinformation age we live in has decreased our overall trust in just about everyone and everything. 

A person holding a fake news headline newspaper.
 Rawpixel / Getty Images

"Disinformation erodes the trust we have in each other," said Dr. Joan Donovan, Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media at Harvard, Politics and Public Policy., during Friday’s discussion. "It makes living together harder, and we don't end up living in the society we want."

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between July 27-August 2 of this year, 73% of adults say they are not confident in tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to prevent misinformation, especially when it comes to the election. 

These platforms are super-spreaders of misinformation, partly because of who is spreading it. 

"Misinformation spreads because people in your community that you trust share it. Trust is the best way to spread misinformation," April Glaser, an investigative reporter at NBC News, added. "We believe people that we have relationships with, and we have reasons to believe them." 

Disinformation isn’t just a sensationalized or fake news article—experts say it can be propaganda or media manipulation adapted by bad actors for many purposes and many targets. It can come in the form of your uncle sharing an article containing a conspiracy theory or even in the form of you sharing something without first reading or understanding it. 

The roots of disinformation always have an agenda, even if you don’t know it, and the underlying goal is always to reach as many people as possible, no matter who spreads it or how.

"We have to know that disinformation isn’t something innocent; it’s something very intentional and plotted out," said Rael. "There is always a gain to spreading disinformation, whether it’s capital, power, or position." 

How Do We Solve It? 

Of course, all Big Tech platforms have policies in place to curb the spread of disinformation, such as content moderation practices or advanced algorithms that flag certain topics. However, experts say it’s ultimately up to us to catch the remaining disinformation that slips through the cracks. 

"We need to change the culture and change what’s acceptable. We need to stop people in their tracks of spreading misinformation lies," Donovan said. "If we are going to clean up social media, we are going to have to deal with it like a public health crisis." 

Group of people seated in a circle having a discussion.
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images 

Donovan said that people need access to timely, local, relevant, and authoritative information, especially when everyone feels like something is wrong, but no one quite knows how to say what that is. 

"People need to learn how to articulate the political issue on the tip of their tongue," Glaser added. "That requires knowing what we need and want and being clear about it." 

Ultimately, Glaser said we need to start talking to each other more in our local communities—whether that be family, friends, or neighbors—no matter what our points of view are. And that starts outside the boundaries of social media. 

"We are not going to see political change unless we work on having more trust in our communities, and we need to do that by starting to talk to each other," she said. "In the same way disinformation is spread, we can also spread true information locally with the people that we trust the most."