IVLP alumna Shruti Pandalai talks about the challenges of dealing with fake news and misleading information.
The blurring line separating fact from fiction presents a significant challenge as countries around the world try to address major issues facing their societies. Participants grappled with this issue at a recent U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on “Identifying and Combating Disinformation in the Quad” that brought together emerging leaders from Quad countries. The Quad is a partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the United States committed to supporting an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
The IVLP participants traveled to Washington, D.C.; Saint Louis, Missouri; Seattle, Washington; and San Francisco, California. They examined trends and technologies in detecting and combating disinformation and fake news. The program highlighted the seriousness of disinformation campaigns, fact-checking, investigative journalism, and specialized polling to counter misleading information. The participants also engaged with American counterparts on strategies to build public awareness around disinformation, exploring the role of government agencies, NGOs, academia, and traditional and social media in the fight against fake news and disinformation.
“It was a very good, useful introduction, with so much honesty about both the success and failures of dealing with the problems of disinformation and misinformation,” says Shruti Pandalai, a fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, who participated in the program.
Misinformation is generally defined as inaccurate information that the person or organization presenting believes to be true. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately spread with the intention of manipulating or otherwise doing harm to the recipients.
Cause and effect
The blurring of the line separating fact from fiction has many causes, including our individual cognitive biases on certain subjects; changes to the information ecosystem, including the rise of social media and changes in the economics of news; as well as political and social polarization, according to a study by the RAND Corporation, an American nonprofit global policy think tank.
The increasing volume of opinions presented as facts can erode public trust in institutions, feed deepening political polarization, weaken or displace civil conversations required for a healthy democracy, and contribute to alienation and disengagement, the RAND study found. Rejecting facts in favor of opinions can have immediate consequences for individuals, the study also found, noting that in the case of COVID-19, rejecting facts about the disease and how it spreads may have contributed to an increase in health problems.
A proactive approach
A major concern is the increasing influence of social media, where false information can be shared without adequate monitoring of the content or the individuals and groups providing it.
“Social media can be used for bad or for good,” says Pandalai. “The bad guys are usually better at disinformation, so the good guys just need to catch up.”
Pandalai, who previously worked as a news anchor and broadcast journalist at a leading English news network, also noted that there are fewer safeguards today at print and broadcast news outlets, which means that readers and viewers have to be more proactive in determining for themselves what is real and what is false.
“Rumors have longer lives than news, and there used to be fact-checkers who reviewed the news before it went out,” she says. “Now, there’s been a reversal, and people have to read multiple sources in order to know what’s going on.”
Combating disinformation is especially challenging in a diverse country like India, according to the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides fact-checking, media literacy and journalism ethics training.
With an estimated 825 million internet users in India, an article on the Poynter website notes that, “verifying all the misinformation rampant on social media is a mammoth task. The diversity of language, culture and politics in India only makes the task more difficult.” The Indian Constitution recognizes 22 languages. “Hence, debunking false information in one or two languages does not help in reaching a wider population of the country,” the article adds.
“The media as a whole and individual consumers of news need to be aware of where information is coming from,” Pandalai says, adding that, for her, the main takeaway from the IVLP “was the amazing ability of America to be so honest about dealing with the problem.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.