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Joint efforts needed to combat disinformation

June 13, 2024

The spread of fake news is destabilizing societies and fueling anti-democratic movements around the world. Collaborative efforts are needed to tackle the problem, says a new report.

Social media icons logo displayed on a smartphone with disinformation on screen seen in the background,
Image: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Transnational cooperation between civil society organizations, media outlets, and the world's largest technology companies is needed to effectively combat disinformation, according to a new analysis by non-profit think tank the Bertelsmann Foundation.

"We need to be just as professional and coordinated as those who seek to do harm with their campaigns," said Cathleen Berger, a senior expert on future technologies and sustainability at the foundation and one of the report's co-authors. The analysis is based on discussions with more than 100 experts, academics, activists, and policymakers from more than 50 countries, she added.

Globally, researchers report an increase in the amount of false and misleading information circulating online, which is spread by both foreign and domestic actors using a variety of methods. 

The trend has fueled anti-democratic movements and hatred in countries from Thailand to Ethiopia, the report warns. To combat this evolving threat, civil society and policymakers need to adapt their strategies, it adds.

"We need to move from targeting individual incidents to targeting the whole industry behind them," Berger told DW.   

The limits of fact-checking

Disinformation is not a new phenomenon; for centuries, malicious actors have sought to influence public opinion by spreading false narratives. 

Over the past two decades, however, the Internet and social media have seen the problem reach an entirely new scale.In response, both traditional media organizations and non-governmental organizations have launched efforts to combat it.

 A man watches exit polls on his mobile phone after voting concluded at the end of the seventh and final phase of voting in India's general election, in Hyderabad on June 1, 2024.
Disinformation campaigns often focus on elections, warns the reportImage: Noah Seelam/AFP

This has led to a proliferation of "fact-checking" initiatives around the world, in which journalists or NGOs verify the accuracy of claims circulating online through research, cross-referencing sources, and consulting experts. But while these efforts are vital, they are not a silver bullet, Berger cautioned — with the sheer volume of new false content outpacing efforts to debunk it.

"Fact-checking obviously doesn't scale with the speed and momentum that we're seeing with disinformation online," she said. "We just can't check everything."

'Pre-bunking' and demonetizing

That is why new approaches are needed, according to Berger.

"We also need pre-bunking," she said, referring to a strategy of alerting people to fake content before they see it online, while also proactively promoting accurate information and awareness of the spread of disinformation.

"It's about training people to recognize certain narratives so that even before something is fully fact-checked, they already sense that something is wrong," she said.

Cathleen Berger, who works as a senior expert for the Bertelsmann Foundation, outside in nature
Cathleen Berger co-leads the 'Upgrade Democracy' project at Bertelsmann FoundationImage: privat

At the same time, Berger stressed the importance of "demonetizing the disinformation business." The rise of disinformation, she warned, has led to an entire ecosystem of often highly professional actors who monetize disinformation in various ways. These include generating advertising revenue on services such as those of US tech giants Google or Meta, which owns Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.  

"Companies need to cut off the funding of disinformation campaigns," Berger said.

Big Tech's responsibility

And the responsibility of large tech companies goes even further, Berger emphasized. "Most of them point to all the things they've already done, but given their resources and outsized influence, so much more is needed," she said. 

That includes giving researchers and fact-checkers better access to information about what's happening on their platforms. In the European Union, a new law now requires them to provide such data to researchers studying the spread of disinformation.

Fact check: How AI may influence elections in 2024

Still, "we're learning that researchers are still being denied access to data," Berger said. At the same time, "researchers outside the European Union often do not get access at all," she warned. The report cites examples of researchers from Thailand, Brazil, Mexico and Kenya facing such hurdles.              

Working together

At the same time, it's becoming increasingly clear that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to combating disinformation, not least because the platforms people use to receive news are vastly different, according to the report: "For example, 55% of Africans use WhatsApp, compared to just 6% in North America," it says. Countermeasures should therefore be tailored to the regions they target.

India elections offer a look at the impact of 'deepfakes'

And yet transnational cooperation is crucial, the report stresses: "Disinformation campaigns target discourses across national borders." Therefore, anti-disinformation organizations should share information so they can "adapt their strategies according to lessons learned from other regions."

"There's so much knowledge out there and so many great ideas," co-author Berger told DW. "If we just connected them, we would be so much more powerful."

Edited by Helen Whittle

Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker Janosch Delcker is based in Berlin and covers the intersection of politics and technology.@JanoschDelcker