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Disinformation 101

Dorka Takacsy


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Remember the 2016 US elections, where "fake news" became a global phenomenon? Disinformation isn't a distant memory – it's flowing freely, threatening the very foundation of democratic processes like the upcoming European elections. While constant news bombards us, becoming numb to the dangers lurking within is easy. But make no mistake: understanding disinformation, its motives, and our defenses is critical now more than ever.


As active guardians of democracy, civil society organizations play a vital role in safeguarding public discourse and ensuring informed free elections. Equipping yourselves with the knowledge and tools to combat disinformation is essential to protect European democracy from its manipulative grip. So, let's dive in! We'll explore the essence of disinformation, its insidious goals, and, most importantly, some concrete strategies for organizations to effectively counter it in the lead-up to the elections and beyond. Remember, informed citizens are empowered citizens, and together, we can build a more resilient European democracy.


1) What is disinformation?

Disinformation refers to the deliberate spread of false or misleading information. This key distinction separates it from misinformation, simply incorrect information spread unintentionally. The current information landscape, mainly social media platforms, provides fertile ground for its growth. Disinformation campaigns can aim to dissuade people from specific actions, convince them of certain narratives, discredit individuals or entities, or manipulate opinions in various ways.


2) How does disinformation work in general?

  • Convincing you. Inauthentic behaviors such as fake profiles and bots are often used to make disinformation more efficient. By amplifying the message, the disinformers create the illusion of social support behind certain opinions and narratives. The goal is to influence others who might lose their certainty in their own opinion and adjust theirs to the one promoted by fake profiles that they perceive as the majority. The qual is that they question their beliefs and ask themselves, if everyone thinks differently from me, aren’t they right?

  • Confusing you. Disinformation does not always try to convince you about something. Often, the goal is to create noise so that the target audience will feel confused and cannot understand whatever is happening around them because “everybody lies.” These disinformation narratives aim to create apathy, political passivity, and reluctance to participate in politics and public life in general.


3) How can it be used in electoral campaigns?

  • Manipulating voters. Disinformation can influence public opinion by spreading incorrect information about candidates, issues, or the political process. To this purpose, we must pay special attention to AI, as deepfake videos and AI-generated robocalls are already widely available, as evidenced by the recent elections in Taiwan and Slovakia. We must prepare ourselves to recognize and counteract these tools.

  • Undermining trust. Disinformation frequently seeks to undermine trust in democratic institutions, election procedures, and so on. Frequent exposure to manipulated information can erode trust in institutions and democratic processes, and it must be avoided to the greatest extent possible through transparent, strategic communication because it is always easier to prevent or weaken disinformation narratives than to react to them, as debunking typically reaches only a small fraction of the original audience's size.

  • Suppressing participation. Fear-mongering or hate-mongering caused by disinformation may dissuade individuals from voting. It can have a particularly detrimental and discriminating impact on minorities throughout Europe thus, we should pay special attention to it.


4) Disinformation and digital threats also impair our freedom to vote in several ways.

  • Unequal to information. The dissemination of altered narratives can create an unequal playing field, preventing voters from making informed decisions. This affects people's ability to represent their and others' interests.

  • Silencing legitimate voices. Disinformation operations can drown out opposing viewpoints and inhibit genuine dialogue. They can also further polarize our society and weaken social cohesion, resulting in increased frustration and societies that cannot respond effectively to external challenges.

  • Chilling effect. Individuals may be discouraged from expressing their opinions or participating in public discussions due to a fear of online harassment or manipulation.


5) What can you do as a news-consumer individual?

First, be aware and stay vigilant to avoid being fooled and easily misled. You don’t need to be paranoid, but a little reflection on the content we consume never does any harm.

  • Verify information. Do not share material without first verifying its source and credibility. Use fact-checking websites and tools! Fortunately, there are plenty available; all we have to do is use them and show them to those who need them but do not necessarily know them yet.

  • Be aware of emotional appeals. Disinformation commonly uses fear, anger, or outrage. Before sharing anything that elicits strong emotions, think about it carefully. If it is overly emotionally charged, be wary and take a moment to contemplate. Before sharing anything emotionally charged, pause, reflect, and ask yourself:

    • Is this emotionally manipulative?

    • What impact is it trying to have on me?

    • Is this a reliable source? Are there other sources to back it up?

  • Report malicious activities you notice. Report questionable accounts or disinformation content to platform moderators, as well as your local authorities if relevant. Social media networks are justifiably condemned for doing too little to combat disinformation, but palpable, hard data is essential for advocacy groups so that they can refer to them when requesting the platforms to make more effective steps to combat disinformation. Reports on malicious activities are such much-needed data. The same goes for reporting to municipal authorities. It may appear that one simple report is just a drop in the ocean, but it may have a significant long-term impact.


6) For your organizations, the following steps may come in handy:

  • Monitor online conversations. Regularly track mentions of your organization and identify potential disinformation early on. Use social listening tools and establish clear reporting channels to be well-informed and assess properly when you need to intervene and respond to certain disinformation narratives.

  • Strategic communication is of paramount importance. It is always easier to prevent certain disinformation narratives from getting a hold than to respond to them. Consistent, regular, transparent, and convincing communication on your organization’s side builds trust toward your target audiences, who, as a result, will not be susceptible to disinformation about you. Also, having strategic communication plans enables organizations to quickly identify and respond to disinformation to mitigate harm. It is essential to protect your organization’s reputation as well.

  • You can ‘prebunk’ myths even before they start to spread! As a proactive defense mechanism, instead of waiting to react to specific disinformation campaigns, prebunking inoculates audiences beforehand. Exposing individuals to weakened versions of common misinformation tactics and equipping them with critical thinking skills makes them less susceptible to future manipulation. So, if you suspect that your organization can be an object of disinformation campaigns, you might want to think ahead and include prebunking certain myths and half-truths in your strategic communication plans. By doing so, you might react quicker and intervene timely if things turn bad.

  • If things are already bad, fear not. You can still respond.

    • Act swiftly but carefully: Address emerging disinformation promptly but avoid hasty reactions that could further amplify it. Assess the severity and potential impact before responding.

    • Be clear and concise: Communicate factual corrections clearly and concisely, using simple language and avoiding technical jargon. Focus on the essential points and debunk the core disinformation elements.

    • Direct responses to the source: If possible, engage directly with the source of the disinformation to provide corrections and clarify any misunderstandings. Be respectful and avoid inflammatory language.

    • Utilize multiple channels: Communicate your response through various channels where the disinformation originated and where your target audiences frequent. Leverage social media, traditional media, and your website.


Do you want to find out more about combatting disinformation? Get in touch at info@centerfordigitalaction.eu and check out our project on countering disinformation at https://www.centerfordigitalaction.eu/disinfo.


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