Combating Disinformation (The New Censorship)

Helping journalists sort through the noise to get to the truth in Moldova

A fourth grader holding a newspaper during a media literacy discussion at Ratus Public Library. / Eduard Bizgu for USAID/Moldova

In today’s networked environment, where any citizen can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, censorship might seem impossible, writes scholar Zeynep Tufekci. However, as we see citizens globally inundated by an endless supply of information, censors today don’t try to block it, rather, they spread misinformation or distract us with trivialities.

The problems that I work on as a media expert with USAID’s Center on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, are now challenged by what some have called the “firehose of falsehood” — the endless distractions and noise the internet provides. It is confusing enough for most to become resigned, believing that we may never actually know the truth.

And with truth obscured — we risk being reduced to passivity, incapable of being the active and informed citizens democracy requires. This is acutely felt in emerging democracies USAID supports.

In as many as 48 countries around the world, governments and political parties organize various forms of social media manipulation, according to a 2018 report from the Oxford Internet Institute.

Pushing Back Against Disinformation

Disinformation is false information that is intended to mislead citizens, pollute public discourse, distort political processes, and drown out voices of civil society and independent media. Pushing back against it requires an approach that includes raising the cost for those infusing the system with it.

For example, when Moldova — a landlocked country with a population of nearly 3.5 million and one of the poorest countries in Europe — held its parliamentary elections in February, the media was inundated with disinformation from neighboring Russia, which exerts tremendous influence over the country’s information landscape, and from domestic actors.

View of the capital city Chisinau, Moldova. / InspiredbyMaps

Disinformation and trolling increasingly became a threat to civil discourse. Amidst the noise, citizens became disinterested, tuned out the media, and became skeptical of the independence and objectivity of the country’s media — a majority of which is controlled by oligarchs with their own interests, according to a study from Moldova’s Association of Independent Press.

USAID’s independent media support programming in Moldova, implemented by Internews, is increasing the quality of content and the media’s financial viability, and supporting the development of legal frameworks to reinforce existing protections for freedom of speech. These interventions are at the heart of media development.

At the same time, it is critical to raise the stakes for those polluting the information ecosystem with disinformation.

USAID partners, including the ProFact Moldova Network, train fact-checkers in the investigative techniques of digital forensics and data verification. Frequently, false narratives emerge from tampered images and videos, and decontextualized or partial content. In some cases, these attempts to obscure turn out to be a fascinating part of the story, as it’s not clear who is hiding the truth or their underlying motivations for doing so. In these situations, journalists serve an essential purpose to give the public more information to get to the truth.

USAID supports the fact checking portal of the Association of Independent Press, StopFals.md, and includes a campaign that urges citizens to critically engage with their media under the slogan: “Ты человек разумный, думай и анализируй!” (You are an intelligent person, think and analyze!)

Clockwise from top: USAID trained local librarians to increase media literacy, including head of the local library Alexandra Onica who organized a media education discussion with a group of fourth graders from Ratus Elementary School in the Criuleni region. A media literacy display. Students gather with the village librarian for a group photo in front of Ratus Community Center. / Eduard Bizgu for USAID/Moldova

Another initiative to help separate the signal from the noise is the platform trolless.com, which helps users identify and report social media profiles that demonstrate “inauthentic behavior” — trolling or fake accounts.

Trolless.com reported close to 700 suspected fake accounts and pages to Facebook aimed at manipulating the online public debate, a trolling tactic called “false amplification.” Many of these posed as legitimate voters and civic groups as part of a coordinated campaign to generate and distribute hoaxes, disinformation, and memes ahead of the elections. One fake account even impersonated the fact-checking platform StopFals.md.

Facebook, after removing many of these accounts, acknowledged that its investigation “benefited from a tip shared by a local civil society organization“ and ultimately removed the coordinated inauthentic behavior.

“We can keep debunking, but there will always be another lie,” said Internews’ director in Moldova, Corina Cepoi. “We will likely never be able to match the resources of the state or of Russia.” Instead, she talks about investing in the long term through media literacy programming that gets citizens to engage critically with the media they consume and build demand for truthful media.

Clockwise from top: That commute to and from work is a perfect time for lessons in media literacy, here on the bus line from villages to the capital in Moldova. A poster describing five signs of an objective and well-written news piece placed on the bus headrest. The posters were published and placed in public transportation that travels between Moldova’s capital and small villages and towns by USAID’s MEDIA-M project. Older members of a community in Moldova meet to discuss current events. / Internews

Not only is USAID-supported programming working in places where media literacy is traditionally taught, such as libraries and schools, but also in more unexpected places, such as the post offices where senior citizens pick up their pensions or mini-buses on which rural residents commute between the capital and their villages. In each of these locations now, posters and literature encourage media consumers to question the credibility of dubious information.

Journalists, media, and civil society must work to surface the truth in our new networked landscape. Freedom House in its 2017 Freedom on the Net Report noted that, “unlike more direct methods of censorship, such as website blocking or arrests for internet activity, online content manipulation is difficult to detect.”

In Moldova, and around the world, USAID supports programs in 30 countries to promote free media, including helping local media systems deliver critical information that help citizens remain engaged and promote citizen-responsive democracy.


About the Author

Josh Machleder is the Senior Media and Internet Freedom Advisor for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.