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Fighting Mis- and Disinformation: 7 Steps for Development Communicators

Fake news is everywhere! This post explains how mis- and disinformation stops the world from achieving sustainable development, and proposes 7 ways for communicators to help fight it.

By Vanina Meyer and Felix Zimmermann, OECD Development Communication Network* 

What do climate change denial, vaccine hesitancy and the loss of trust in multilateralism have in common? They all stem from mis- and disinformation!

Mis- and disinformation affects sustainable development in many ways. Most directly, it discourages citizens from adopting sustainable behaviours like getting vaccinated or reducing their carbon emissions. Just consider some of the perceptions that policy makers need to turn around:

More indirectly, mis- and disinformation reduces peoples’ trust in institutions that are trying to make sustainable development happen. More than half of people believe that government leaders are trying to mislead the population with false or gross exaggerations. Across 19 countries, 7 in 10 citizens consider the spread of false information online to be a “major threat” to their country.

The lack of trust is also a challenge for international development actors. Despite their efforts to communicate about their results and fight corruption, many people still believe that development aid is wasted. In France, for example, 65% of people believe aid is wasted due to corruption. Development organisations from OECD countries also face scepticism in the countries where they operate, not least because of systematic Russian disinformation campaigns.

The problem is that, without trust, policy makers – and their international partners – will not have enough public support and legitimacy to be able to push through, finance and implement reforms.

Fortunately, many efforts are already underway to tackle the spread of mis- and disinformation. These include government efforts to penalise the producers of disinformation and regulate the media platforms through which disinformation can spread. They also include voluntary corporate efforts by digital platforms to moderate content and keep their algorithms in check.

So what does all of this mean for us SDG communicators? What can we do to help? The answer is: a lot!

Communicators are on the front line of the fight against mis- and disinformation. After all, within their organisations, they are the ones who monitor the public debate, understand how citizens consume new and manage relationships with the media.

Earlier this year, the OECD DevCom Network hosted a meeting on what communicators can do to help fight mis- and disinformation. Alongside DevCom members, the event brought together policy experts on government responses to mis- and disinformation; fact-checking organisations from Africa and Latin America; and specialists on countering influence operations and digital information ecosystems.

Based on the discussion, below are 7 steps for communicators who want to help fight mis- and disinformation. These steps fall into three broad categories:

Gabriela Boiteux Pilná, Permanent Delegation of the Czech Republic to the OECD
Henri-Bernard Solignac Lecomte, OECD Development Cluster
Alicia Wanless, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Craig Matasick, OECD Governance Directorate
Jonathan Tanner, Founder/CEO of Root Cause
Nanette Braun, United Nations Department for Global Communications
Cayley Clifford, Africa Check
Laura Zommer,Chequeado
Catherine Anderson, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate
  1. Mapping and understanding the spread of mis- and disinformation.
  2. Designing communication strategies that keep citizens informed and debunk myths.
  3. Building environments where mis- and disinformation cannot spread.

7 Steps For Development Communicators

Mapping The Spread of mis-disinformation

Step 1: Monitor and track the spread of mis- and disinformation

The more time fake news has to spread, the more difficult it is to stop. By tracking how it spreads, development communicators can help their organisations anticipate problems before they arise. Communicators need to monitor:

  • What kind of information spreads?
  • How it spreads? (e.g. through algorithms; cyberattacks; or advertisements)
  • Where it spreads? (e.g. on which platforms and in which geographical regions),
  • When it spreads? (e.g. around policy announcements)
  • What impact the information is having on public opinion?

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Step 2: Understand your target audience

You cannot build trust among audiences if you don’t know who they are and where they go for news. Communicators today need much more refined understanding of their audiences and have many tools to help, including surveys, consultations, focus groups, or digital analytics. Communicators can also help their organisations become more attentive listeners

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Designing Strategies to inform citizens and debunk myths

Step 3: Tailor Your Strategies

In a fragmented media landscape, a one-size-fits-all approach to communications will not work. Communicators need to tailor their strategies to each audience, reaching them on different platforms, using different content formats, and framing messages in different ways. Communicators need to master and combine: traditional and social media; audio-visual formats and text; data and emotive storytelling; formal messages from government leaders and informal messages from influencers.

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  • To reach the most vulnerable parts of the population during the pandemic, Colombia’s Ministry of Health adapted its campaigns to different local contexts, working with artists, celebrities, scientists  and a big music festival.
  • The European Commission’s #FactsMatter campaign aimed to reduce mis- and disinformation during the Covid pandemic.
  • EarthTopia builds short and compelling videos to engage the “TikTok generation” on environmental issues.
  • The DevCom Toolkit includes advice on Framing, Formats, Channels.

Step 4: build partnerships

Fighting mis- and disinformation is a team effort. Communicators need to partner with scientific experts and policy makers to ensure that they have the right facts to share, with traditional and social media platforms to help their messages reach further, and with intelligence analysts and experts on algorithms to understand how facts and fake news travel.  

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  • The European Digital Media Observatory brings together academic researchers, fact-checkers, media practitioners and others seeking to expose disinformation campaigns, organise media literacy activities and analyse digital media ecosystems. 

Building environments where mis- and disinformation cannot spread easily

Step 5: Promote awareness and more responsible online behaviours

Citizens need to become actors in the fight against mis-and disinformation. Communicators need to not just alert people to specific instances of mis-and disinformation, but promote a fact-checking  culture where people consume and share content more responsibly. Here is a list of awareness-raising campaigns and fact-checking initiatives that communicators can help amplify: Verified, #ThinkBeforeSharing, Pause, #TakeCareBeforeYoushare.

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Step 6: link with educators to promote digital and media literacy

Younger generations may be “digital natives”, but are also highly susceptible to mis- and disinformation. The OECD PISA Survey finds that, on average, only half of all 15-year-old students in OECD countries can distinguish facts from opinions. Communicators could link up more closely with educators to equip young learners with digital and media literacy skills. On the one hand, educators can provide communicators with pedagogical tools to help citizens become better fact-checkers. On the other, communicators can help educators campaign for the inclusion of media literacy in school curricula.

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Step 7: reinforce independent journalism

Freedom of the press is in decline for 85% of the world’s population.  Development communicators need to help their organisations support independent journalism, particularly in partner countries where the media is most vulnerable. This may require some critical self-reflection among communicators, whose efforts to get news coverage may sometimes actually undermine the freedom of the press.

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Please read our discussion note below for a more detailed discussion on what mis-and disinformation is and why it matters for sustainable development and international development co-operation.  

The OECD Development Communication Network will continue to work on media partnerships as part of its 2023-2024 work programme, linking up closely with the work of the OECD Public Governance Directorate and the OECD DAC Network on Governance (GovNet).

Please contact us to get involved!

* This post represents the personal views of the authors and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or the OECD Development Centre.

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