Nonprofit capacity in disinformation age
We live in an age of disinformation. Lies under oath, lies on line, bot-spread fake news, the inability to tell fact from advocacy, trolling, doxing,* online/offline harassment — this is the atmosphere in which civil society actors — organizations, activists, and individuals — operate. In many cases we perpetuate these acts.
Yes, that’s a harsh thing to admit but nonprofits, groups of citizens, and people coming together are using these tactics to get their messages across, to mobilize people, and to silence those with whom they disagree.
In other words, as a whole, civil society is neither exempt from nor innocent in creating and perpetuating the age of disinformation in which we now live. Some examples:
- Activists get doxed. White supremacists descend on Berkeley, CA knowing they will attract counter protesters. They use the opportunity to photograph, identify, and then make life miserable (or worse) for the counter protesters by using those photographs to hassle them endlessly on line and off. The white supremacists groups are exercising their free speech and associational rights — they are acting in civil society. The protesters are also. The physical gatherings were intentional tactics to lure out the groups’ opponents, gather information on them, and use it to impinge on their individual and collective ability to speak out and gather safely in the future. The old tactic of countering bad speech with more speech doesn’t work anymore — online, offline, or in the real world in which we live in which these two are very difficult to separate. The transition is to a world in which that physical world engagement generates the raw material for ongoing, online violence.
- Advocacy organizations spreading false information about everything from vaccines to gay marriage create online presences (websites, social media accounts) and amplify their messages above and beyond the voice of accurate scientific information.
- People let down their guard in an information environment which offers few clues to credibility — and lose the ability, or fail to use their ability, to critically assess fact from fiction.
- The social media platforms that provide a majority of people with their first pass at “news” do nothing useful to prioritize veracity.
- Newsrooms aren’t alone in needing to fact check; nonprofits need to do this also — it needs to become part of their communications strategy. And it is not easy to do.
- Doxing, trolling and disinformation are long term issues. They require a sustained ability to respond. Nonprofits and foundations need to be in it for the long term.
Nonprofits and foundations that fail to recognize this reality are doing a disservice to their causes. It is not enough to invest in good causes getting their messages out. There needs to be deep reckoning — on all issues — about what is the counter message, where is it coming from, and how do you respond to it in ethical, safe, and effective ways?
This is, in part, a communications issue. And much more. It is really a mission and strategy issue and a reality check on how well we, the people running nonprofits and foundations, understand the digital environment in which we live, the way it can be used to manipulate people, and the ways in which our actions — or inaction — matter. Nonprofits and foundations like to think of themselves as the “good guys.” But each and everyone one of them — if they’re doing something that matters — faces nonprofits and foundations that disagree with them and are working to achieve a countervailing goal.
We don’t live in a world of clear truths (not that we ever have). We do live in an information ecosystem which is extremely easy to manipulate — the social media systems are purpose-built to manipulate. Facts and good intentions aren’t enough. Understanding the nature of the information ecosystem — the ways it makes getting your message heard harder, not easier, and the ways it threatens the well-being and safety of those you are trying to help — is no longer an optional, edge requirement. It’s reality for all of us in the digital age.
*to dox, doxxing — to search out and make public personal information (address, kids’ names, account #s) of people you disagree with and dump it onto the internet for others to use to harass and endanger those individuals.