Blurred lines between fact & fiction: Disinformation online

29 Nov 2022 12:35h - 14:05h

Session page

Event report

According to the panellists of this session, the concept of disinformation refers to false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented, or promoted intentionally to cause public harm or make a profit. The rise of social media platforms and digital media has enabled a more direct access to both good quality information, but also to disinformation. Consequently, there is a pressing need to discuss what the effects of the proliferation of disinformation are on democratic societies and how to combat the problems that come with disinformed citizens.

Over the last decade, the proliferation of online disinformation has directly impacted long-established democracies. Online disinformation campaigns are now the norm whenever an election is approaching. There are many examples across the globe, and panellists cited a documented case from Brazil. The research showed that in a sample of 11,957 viral messages shared across 296 WhatsApp group chats during the 2018 campaign period for the Brazilian presidential election, approximately 42% of right-wing items contained information found to be false by factcheckers. On the other hand, less than 3% of the left-wing messages analysed in the study contained externally verified falsehoods.

It has been proven that so-called fake news leads citizens to believe false information, but they mainly erode trust in the media and democratic institutions. How can we counter disinformation while still protecting the fundamental right of freedom of speech? The problem is complex, and as such, there are no simple solutions. One powerful line of action is promoting quality information that complies with journalistic good practices. 

Another relevant solution proposed by the panellists was investing in the design and implementation of digital literacy programmes. Media literacy skills would empower citizens through a critical analysis of the information they are exposed to, and thus help them make correctly informed decisions at the individual and societal levels. 

Nevertheless, we should always keep in mind that there are challenges in the development of digital literacy programmes, especially for vulnerable groups. For example, young audiences are often not aware of the effects that online disinformation can have on their beliefs and behaviour. Additionally, young people might not engage with digital literacy programmes that only warn them about potential dangers of being online through plain text. On the other hand, in some countries, there are large shares of the population who are illiterate and only access information through audio or video content. If they cannot read or write, digital media training seems like an unrealistic approach to tackle this issue. Digital media literacy campaigns would have to be tailored for different audiences and specific needs, in accordance with a given context.

From the legal perspective, panellists stressed the importance of the development of a civil rights framework that includes content regarding hate speech and disinformation online. For example, Brazil has been discussing legislation that addresses all these issues by establishing principles to guarantee the rights of internet users. The global discussions regarding content moderation are reflected in this framework. It aims to guarantee free speech and prevent censorship, favouring the manifestation of ideas online.

By Paula Szewach