Addressing Disinformation by Bringing Together the Right People

I had the honor of attending the State Department’s latest Tech Camp, in Nicosia, Cyprus last week. The workshop, co-hosted by the Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, and the University of Nicosia, was centered around digital skills and tools for countering disinformation. Approximately 75 energetic students, activists, NGOS, technologists and journalists represented eight different countries — Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Serbia and Turkey. As a representative of Truepic, an organization already creating photo and video verification technology to counter disinformation and fraud online, I was invited to teach participants how technologies that establish visual trust could help push back against disinformation. It was a fantastic experience and I ended up learning quite a few things from the participants themselves.

No One Solution to the Problem

All of the participants were highly informed and working to apply cutting-edge technology to real global challenges. On the first night, I led a brainstorming session with an open source investigations expert from Bellingcat, and it served as a chance to hear participants’ thoughts and ideas on how disinformation has played out in their own countries. We asked them to define disinformation and many of the responses were straightforward and expected. “Fake, manipulative, provocative, misleading, erosion of trust, harmful, intentional” were among the consensus responses from the group. However, when the discussion turned to solutions and how to fight back against disinformation, clear differences emerged. None of the solutions proposed were unrealistic or naive; rather, it was the wide array of sensible but different answers that surprised me.

One activist from Moldova asserted that resources for positive actors and technologists were necessary to counter the problem. However, another participant countered: “Resources are important, but without costs for the bad actors nothing will change,” said a Serbian lawyer, advocating for regulations and consequences for those who engage in spreading disinformation. Other participants from Cyprus and Turkey questioned if regulations were essential because often times it may be regulators themselves spreading the disinformation. They argued that public education and media literacy are the only ways to defend against disinformation so that the general populations can filter out deception to find the truth.

In my estimation, all of these approaches (and others) are correct, and must all be combined in a sort of comprehensive interdisciplinary approach.

In my estimation, all of these approaches (and others) are correct, and must all be combined in a sort of comprehensive interdisciplinary approach. What became clear is that although disinformation is a global problem, it affects every population, region, and country differently. Therefore, the participants helped me realize that each community, country, or region might have a different approach to countering disinformation.

Project — Helping Local Communities Predict Disinformation

The Tech Camp was structured so participants could develop a project to counter disinformation, and pitch it to a panel of judges who could provide workable feedback. In all, 11 ideas were created and pitched. My team of participants wanted to bolster defense against disinformation at the local, regional, or country level. However, to do that, the team agreed that a tool must be created to help local communities, journalists, governments, academics and others predict how the disinformation would spread within its community.

The goal was to pitch a predictive analytic tool with variable inputs, so that communities would have a better idea on the likely course of the disinformation campaign and stop it in its tracks. The variable inputs would be critical to scaling and adjusting the likely path of the disinformation based on the community, region, or country. Variables would include data—like internet connectivity, education levels, smartphone penetration, social media usage and the severity of the false claim. The tool would connect with APIs of popular social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to extract data. The team envisioned the tool’s look and feel would mimic the innovative trackers by Jigsaw like its DDOS attack map or Syrian defection tracker. This idea was applauded by the pitch judges and many observers noted how useful it would be. I was blown away by the group’s creativity, resourcefulness, technical, legal, and sociological understanding of disinformation. Indeed, I thought, this tool would be significantly useful and could be scaled with big tech partners.

Disinformation is a daunting problem and, at times, it appears as though nothing will stem the tide. However, the participants at Tech Camp Cyprus gave me hope that ultimately people will be the solution to this disruptive problem. Furthermore, government has tremendous convening power to get the most capable, energetic and knowledgeable people together to solve a problem. If this short Tech Camp could produce amazing ideas like a predictive analytic tool to stem the tide of disinformation, image what a concerted international effort with resources and the world’s top experts would do.