We have greater access to information today than at any time in history. But as the volume of information available to us increases, so does the amount of disinformation that is circulating, particularly online. In our information-centric era, research is a key weapon in the fight against disinformation. We take a look at how different types of organisations are affected by the challenges caused by this modern peril, and how they are using research, coupled with new ways of partnering, to understand and overcome it.
Academia and think tanks
Academia is at the forefront of highlighting the effects of disinformation (the intentional spread of false information) on society. However, the focus on disinformation in academic circles has developed fairly recently – largely in the last decade – so there are several issues still to be addressed. These include unclear ontology of the terms such as the lack of messaging regarding the distinction between misinformation and disinformation, and neglecting issues beyond those of the Anglosphere, especially since in many countries according to a Reuters Institute Study in 2018 the majority of the population believes that disinformation is a cause for concern.
Despite these flaws, its early life as a subject also means there is opportunity for growth and to address these issues. These advances include improving methodological rigour, and broadening the scope of the subject to make it more interdisciplinary in order to allow for collaboration between academics of different subjects. Recent developments, such as the announcement by the University of Manchester that it is introducing a new disinformation-centred master’s degree, should provide encouragement to those concerned about recent developments in academia, while bringing new expertise to the sector.
Operating in the same research-sphere as universities are think tanks. With disinformation of growing concern to politicians and civil servants, it is becoming increasingly important for think tanks to factor it in to the analysis they are recommending, to ensure they are heeded by policymakers and achieve their goals of shaping policy. Many think tanks have a further incentive for researching disinformation – they themselves can be impacted negatively by it. Some have been accused of fuelling disinformation, and some have been victims of accusations originating from disinformation. One of the best antidotes to this is to provide full transparency of their affairs, including their sources of funding.
As academia seeks to get to grips with disinformation from a theoretical perspective, businesses are seeking to develop practical strategies to combat it. Negative news already has a huge impact on businesses, with studies from Moz in 2015 showing that they risk losing up to 22% of prospective customers from just one negative article appearing in online search results, with up to a 70% loss if this rises to four or more negative articles.
The sudden rise of disinformation means many businesses are not equipped to deal with it effectively themselves, despite over half of business leaders in surveys from iResearch Services in 2022 believing disinformation is a worsening problem. Many businesses enlist the help of specialists in the field, but with a limited number of companies specialising in disinformation, and the speed at which the problem is growing, it can be difficult for businesses to find the help they need.
Most of the leading disinformation specialists for businesses are companies that already existed in public relations, communications, and reputation management. These industries have dealt with false information for decades, which has enabled them to upskill rapidly in response to the growing problem of disinformation. However, not every company in this industry has been successful in dealing with disinformation campaigns. Successful companies in this field are those who appreciate the differences between traditional and modern disinformation, and have founded new departments researching and combatting today’s problems. Limiting responses to these new threats to traditional means, such as press releases, is likely to fall far short of achieving the desired effect.
In order to limit reputational damage, a decline in share price (the company Eli Lilly lost $22bn of share value in one day due to the effects of an online rumour), and legal issues for their clients, specialist companies need strong disinformation strategies, including continuous research of the subject. Companies have to be aware of how disinformation evolves and evades detection, understanding how images, memes, and altered spellings of words can be used to spread fake stories that are difficult to detect. A solid understanding of the different dynamics of online platforms is vital for informing strategy: for example, disinformation that originates on a mainstream platform stands a far greater chance of being stopped by a legal challenge.
The scale and impact of disinformation has led to increasing collaboration between the public and private sectors in research and strategy development. These public-private partnerships range in size and scope, from the UK Government funding the Semantic Visions prize for developing anti-disinformation tech, to examples of partnerships that see both sides acting as equal partners.
Some of these partnerships specialise in one particular area, such as the WHO seeking the help of private companies to tackle health-related disinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other intergovernmental organisations and national governments have sought broader partnerships, such as the EU trialling a voluntary experiment in self-regulation within the tech industry in 2018. The experiment focused on areas including online advertisements, political advertising, and transparency for researchers, and it is now being used as a launchpad for more permanent policy in the field.
The USA has established its own plans to engage with the private sector, with several research-related points included in those plans. Notable examples include: direct access to US Government resources such as information-sharing; training for private and public workforces to identify and counter disinformation and increase disinformation awareness; and facilitating conferences and seminars between the US intelligence community and the private sector.
All these developments demonstrate an appreciation of the need for greater levels of research on disinformation, due to the impact it has across society. With organisations across multiple sectors working independently and in collaboration, it is hoped that society will have greater protection against this major threat faced by the modern world.