Rebuilding trust in media and civil society: The evidence on how to treat information disorders

March 2, 2023
Credit: IREX

During a recent workshop in a country where the mainstream media is increasingly filled with government-sponsored disinformation, members of independent media and civil society organizations voiced their frustrations: Pro-government media, trolls and bots were attacking them, turning public sentiment against them.

“We got used to thinking of ourselves as the heroes,” one former journalist lamented. “We want to be the heroes again.”

The result of the workshop was a list of ideas about what these organizations can do to get closer to the citizens they serve and regain public trust in the information they provide for the greater good. It was organized by CSM-STAND, a USAID-funded program co-led by Pact and IREX that supports independent civil society and media around the world.

One of the pillars of our learning agenda is to better understand what civic actors and media organizations can do to improve public trust. When the public is skeptical of trustworthy information and takes action based on lies designed to manipulate them, it objectively harms civic participation and can lead to dire consequences for public health and intergroup conflict. We are at an interesting point in history where there is a gap between the expansion of communication technologies and the cultural and regulatory structures that protect and empower the ordinary people who use them. Powerful people can manipulate this information ecosystem to create apathy and mistrust about civic life that allows them to pursue their own profit and power.

IREX recently published an evidence brief on its Learn to Discern (L2D) approach to combating manipulative information. To build resilience against manipulative information, L2D trains individuals to navigate media and information spaces in a safe, critical and responsible way. While media literacy and civic education are well established tools in the practitioner toolbox, one of the most promising aspects of L2D is that it takes into account the cognitive and affective components of media consumption and information sharing. Drawing on cognitive psychology, behavioral change and communications research, L2D starts by helping trainees practice emotional control, cognitive reflection, critical thinking, empathy and other mental habits before they learn the technical skills to identify misinformation.

Members of the media cover a session of the Ukrainian parliament in 2015. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

We have to admit, however, that the evidence base of L2D’s approach is still nascent. As part of this global conversation about the problem of information disorder, USAID’s Democracy, Rights and Governance Center kicked off its annual learning forum in February with a review of the evidence on the effectiveness of particular interventions to counter manipulative information, and more specifically, evidence outside of North American and European contexts. The review revealed limited evidence drawing on the kinds of contexts in which USAID does most of its work, although research is ongoing in four areas (informational, socio-psychological, educational and institutional interventions) that are integrated into L2D’s approach.

For practitioners, it is important to know the evidence base and support the generation of new evidence by testing existing hypotheses. But the real challenge comes when we need to adapt an approach to a particular context or to particular constraints on who we can work with in restoring a healthy information ecosystem. Here, too, the L2D Evidence Brief is helpful in showing us what IREX has learned after more than 20 L2D programs about what needs to be done in order to adapt the approach to various contextual conditions and constraints. The main areas of adaptation include identifying where in an ecosystem and in a “manipulative information value chain” we can effect change; realizing what is possible given the political and regulatory environment; identifying the needs and challenges of target audiences; and connecting with trusted interlocutors in that context who can work to improve the ecosystem.

Responding to manipulative information goes far beyond merely correcting facts. Manipulative information, extreme polarization and autocracy have reinforced each other over the last 10 years, with political entrepreneurs manipulating the mass media to drive pernicious polarization, erode democratic institutions and consolidate their groups’ hold on power. CSM-STAND is committed to using our learning agenda to better understand how trustworthy civic and media organizations can be seen as the heroes again.