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Disinformation Wars

January 16, 2019 / Tamara Babiuk

Category
Region
  • Global
Technical Area
  • Strategic Communications

How many of us global development professionals start the New Year with scanning predictions for “the top ten greatest threats for global security”? Or, long for the days when there was broader support for democracy and global alliances? Even those of us who met early 2019 goals in exercising more, volunteering, or eating well may not have avoided scanning a Facebook feed. We have become part of the growing percentage of the population that cites Facebook as its primary news source.

Historically, Facebook was known as a photo-filled freshman guide for incoming university or college classmates: Horrible picture. Great smile. Google was deemed a somewhat risky investment venture due to sparse advertising and design. Journalism was a noble profession designed to objectively inform the public. Artificial intelligence (AI) did not monitor our habits, source content, or direct us to curated sources of information.

All generalizations, but true to one extent: less than two decades ago, we were not prepared for the prevailing 2019 security challenge – “AI and disinformation campaigns are key threats to social and national stability.” Software applications that run online robots (bots) can replicate content across social media. Deepfake technology can doctor video and audio to assume false identities. Scan the news. See the ever-alarming feeds.

Granted, disinformation and technological amplification are nothing new. Even Socrates cautioned about the social consequence of intentionally misleading information. What is different is the sheer speed and scale of their replication. So how, as global development professionals, do we help increase the quality and consumption of information amidst these threats in 2019?

Our colleagues in Eastern Europe and East Africa propose to go back to the basics:

  • Support media capacity. Invest in investigative journalists, enhanced production technologies, legal protection and advocacy for regulations governing press freedoms. Well-trained journalists who champion professional and ethical standards will improve the quality of information and influence informed opinions. They are the new heroes.
  • Replicate the Richard Bransons of the media world. Watch how savvy media owners who know how to run a business scale up viewership and sales. One of Macedonia’s top broadcast media owners increased commercial revenue and hired a strong editorial team. The team was well recognized for its objectivity and quality of nightly news content. The management approach included: delegating to line management, anticipating market opportunities, and hiring and rewarding top quality journalists. Observe these managers in action.
  • Engage Socially. Remember learning about your rights and responsibilities in primary school? Or being actively engaged in local youth groups? We as citizens have a role to play in using media to our advantage (not being used by it or technology), and understanding how governance, AI, and civic engagement, regardless what system, works. Videos like Schoolhouse Rock! helped an entire pre-Facebook generation in the U.S. with understanding how civic and social engagement works. An advertising executive designed it to help his children learn financial literacy.

Media and AI literacy efforts can benefit from similarly simple and culturally applicable tools that educate and entertain on a broad social scale. Such public education programs can also help increase citizens’ demand for quality information by using social marketing principles to change awareness and behavior.


Tamara Babiuk is the Co-Director of Dexis’ Center for Global Security and Stabilization (CGSS). She has worked in democracy and governance in over 20 countries, and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications.

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