Perhaps one of the biggest legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic will be how false information was mobilised and the subsequent harm it created.
We saw this illustrated this week, with an increase in online scepticism about why the New Zealand Government needs to collect our information in the Census.
There is no doubt communicating with groups who distrust traditional sources of information is a growing test for businesses and government.
But going head-to-head with these views is often ineffective, and presents a significant challenge for the communications profession.
When thinking about addressing mis/disinformation from a communications perspective, there are two misconceptions to avoid:
1. These views will disappear now we’re moving into a post-pandemic world
2. These views are just misinformed, and we don’t need to worry about them
On the first point, these groups have provided solidarity and community to people, which continues to be their lifeblood. International connections fuel the sharing of misinformation, aided by online algorithms that continue to serve up content in an echo chamber that reinforces similar beliefs and ideas.
These views won’t disappear, in fact, they’re growing roots like trees that will strengthen ideologies, cement anti-establishment positions, and bring more people in.
People who believe this information are customers, stakeholders and passionate believers in their causes. They are amplified by social media and able to spark and share conversations that influence opinions and perceptions.
This isn’t just happening in an online vacuum. We have already seen the potential for online views to shift to real life – whether that is influencing elections or inciting violence.
On the second point, these views can’t just be dismissed. They have the power to fracture social cohesion more broadly, and should not be minimised or ignored.
Notably, government organisations that need public cooperation must be able to effectively communicate with all people – not just those in the mainstream.
But it’s a really hard thing to do.
What you might think is irrefutable logic can be easily rejected – and worse, it can have the opposite effect of solidifying someone’s position against you.
While not extensive, below are three things to think about when trying to combat mis/disinformation:
1. Understand the motivators
Having a conversation is powerful. We need to learn how to listen and engage in a meaningful way. The conversation is about asking questions – ask people ‘why?’ – and allow them to truly understand their own argument and what is shaping it.
Be prepared to adapt rather than just listen, and encourage a dialogue and critical thinking, rather than push your point, which is likely to entrench held views.
2. Focus on the facts
It’s critical to keep factual and not to be drawn into the emotive side of an argument. These groups are strong because they care for and support each other – they need to be treated with empathy, not eyerolls.
Fire can’t be fought with fire, as it will most likely entrench someone’s position. Instead, explain the benefits of believing credible information, rather than challenging someone’s worldview. Empower people to discover other views, rather than force one on them.
3. Try and pre-bunk
Having to debunk myths or theories that have gained a life of their own is incredibly difficult. The best way of preventing damage is by stopping the spark of an idea before the fire takes hold.
The trick here is to have an ear to the ground and understand what’s being said about you, your organisation, and emerging areas of interest. This enables you to anticipate and see things coming, and to be proactive before the tide turns against you. Provide information the audience can come to on their own before they are swayed by disinformation.
Where to from here?
Communicating with those targeted by disinformation is a massive challenge, but increasingly a necessary one. These people are colleagues, neighbours, and part of our community. A critical audience that organisations must consider when speaking to the public at large.
If an organisation hasn’t already thought about its risks and put a plan in place to address misinformation – it probably should. There is also growing expertise globally, particularly in addressing disinformation fuelled misogyny and hate online.
Take steps to ensure your organisation builds and maintains resilience to information manipulation through trust and transparency. Identifying risks, developing a strategy, and planning scenario-based responses are some first steps to take in successfully addressing counter narratives.