What makes societies susceptible to disinformation?

MANILA, Philippines – The Media Sustainability Index (MSI) 2018 identified disinformation as one of the major themes in European and Eurasian media in 2018, along with journalism being under threat and financial pressures.

The MSI, which is conducted by the International Research and Exchanges Board's (IREX) annually, provides an in-depth analysis of the health of independent media in 21 countries in Eurasia.

IREX Senior Technical Advisor Tara Susman-Peña presented these key trends at a talk hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, DC on Thursday, December 13.

The talk, titled "Reading the Charts: What Data Can Tell Us About Defending the Information Space," covered the key findings of the 2018 Media Sustainability Index (MSI). Panelists also spoke about the International Research & Exchanges Board's (IREX) new framework for measuring complex information systems and what can be done to improve it.

During the talk, Susman-Peña explained that journalists are not only being physically attacked, but are increasingly being legally threatened. She added that this was not something unique to their area of study, but is something happening globally as well, citing the murder of journalist Jamal Khassoggi in Turkey and the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette offices in Annapolis, Maryland.

As for financial pressures, Susman-Peña said that newsrooms are still feeling the impact of the global financial crisis in 2008, forcing them to be dependent on publication's owners who may own media companies solely for their own interests. This could lead to self-censorship, advertising disguised as editorial work, and ultimately a drop in ethical standards.

Lastly, disinformation, said Susman-Peña, shouldn't be a surprising trend in media in 2018, as it continues to propagate in the region. She added: "And [the continual rise of disinformation and the intentional flooding of propaganda into media systems] – together with things like a lack of transparency of online media entrepreneurship, low levels of media literacy – has meant that it's really having an impact on people and on what they believe and how they act."

Susceptibility to disinformation

After the talk, Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute Nina Jankowicz responded to a question about indicators that a society could be susceptibile to disinformation.

Jankowicz specified 4 off the top of her head, speaking briefly about each one.

Trust in institutions, she said, was a big factor in susceptibility to disinformation, though it's difficult to measure.

The lack of "vibrancy of the media sphere" is one reason why the US has fallen victim to disinformation, Jankowicz explained. 

"Our media sphere is kind of atrophying, particularly at the local level, which I view as the connective tissue between people, for instance, in America's heartland and our government in Washington," she said.

Media literacy is another factor, and it goes beyond reading an article and understanding it. It's important, she said, that people also understand ownership of media companies, media transparency, and how the editorial process works.

In some societies, she added, not very many people understand that not everything on the internet is true, which could lead to heightened disinformation.

Rodger Potocki, Senior Director of Europe Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and host of the talk, added that some of the NED grantees he is working with in Europe are trying to identify the narratives certain societies are vulnerable to, and to identify the weaknesses in institutions that allow disinformation to flourish in one country as opposed to another.

Joining Susman-Peña and Jankowicz on the panel was George Sarpong, a Reagan-Fascell Fellow with the NED. – Rappler.com