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Weaponizing disinformation and how we, as consumers of media, can fight back

  • It’s through resilience and adaptability that young people can make their way through the fog of information war.

    Interview with Maia Klaassen, Researcher, trainer and project manager in the field of Media and Information Literacy

It is a pertinent moment to speak to Maia Klaassen, expert in Media and Information Literacy (MIL), based in Tartu, Estonia. As she notes: “Given the current situation (in Ukraine) when it comes to media disinformation: it is very fast-paced, things are changing very quickly”.

War of words: a new hybrid war

We quickly start to discuss how MIL is currently more vital than ever. “War’s traditional domains of sea, air and land, have been supplemented by cyber, space and now – information. War is taking over the cognitive domain; it is individual and in our heads. MIL is therefore directly combatting this current type of warfare.”

It also means that the danger (of the kind of disinformation war that Putin is waging) is not only towards countries which are geographically close, but to the whole of the West. Maia warns though that information on war from all sides needs to be dealt with with a certain amount of sceptism, with figures (for example of wounded and killed) being strategically downplayed or amplified. 

This kind of “hybrid war”, where on-the-ground combat is combined with information war and a conflict between Russian state media and western media is about “winning the war in our heads”, notes Maia. And, of course, social media has its role to play “when you’re living in parallel realities online, you have a different perception of what is going on.” Even with the knowledge that many people have about informational influencing, you can’t control what you see and read on social media, which comes down to the recommendation algorithm and is “hard to control”, says Maia. 

The wild wild west

Maia notes that in news media there’s a safety net, whereby journalists have to check their stories and their sources. Social media, meanwhile, is the “wild wild west”, where a loud minority spread misinformation and a silent majority just scroll down and don’t say anything. This creates a distorted worldview.

How can we deal with media and information in times of crisis?

People’s media consumption habits alter dramatically during times of crisis, such as the current war in Ukraine, according to Maia. For example, some people stop consuming certain types of media, some people’s screen time massively goes up and meanwhile, others turn away from their phones and media altogether. It is too early to say whether this is the case in this conflict.

There are, however, ways to protect yourself and your mental health when it comes to consuming media in times of crisis. The impact of disinformation on young people during this war is yet to be seen… But, Maia thinks it is likely that it will compound any negative impact that the two years of the pandemic have already had on young people: “It’s true that at the moment we have been moving from one crisis to another. The media – which in the end is just a reflection of its audience – is in constant crisis mode, with a super-fast cycle which it is easy to get drawn into.”

Maia is convinced that in order to tackle this MIL skills in young people are absolutely vital. She recommends that you “start with asking yourself how much media you consume? And then, how that media makes you feel. If it is not making you feel good, think about which platforms make you feel better.” And then simply consume more of your media on those platforms; try to find a balance and be aware of “doom scrolling”, which is so addictive in a quickly changing situation. 

Being your own fact checker

In Russia itself at the moment, of course, it is extremely difficult to access neutral information – given that you cannot even mention the war without fear of imprisonment – and, although there are back channels, they are not easily accessible. In fact, cunningly using the west’s tools against it, it has been reported that in Russia fake fact checkers are being used to try to debunk actual facts about the conflict in Ukraine. 

The best way we, as bystanders in this kind of information war, can be best armed against it, is definitively, according to Maia “knowledge”; make the effort to find out if what you are reading online is in fact true – real fact checking websites come in handy here. And use a critical eye with what you are consuming and pause before you click “share”. There are 4 well recognised steps to combat disinformation on social media :

  • Know your algorithm – your algorithm is targeting you based on what you have read and clicked on in the past, it is therefore playing to your biases and your preconceived ideas.
  • Retrain your newsfeed – seek out reputable sources of news. Actively search for different points of view.
  • Scrutinize your news sources – don’t just scroll passively, look critically at where articles are published. On what date? Who is the author etc.?
  • Consider not sharing – by not sharing you are stopping the spread of, potentially, fake news.

The problem with the suggestion of making a thorough check of your news sources is that, actually, if done thoroughly i.e. checking the author, their background where they’ve previously published etc. would actually take quite a long time, if done correctly. “Clearly that’s not possible with our current consumption habits!” says Maia. Instead, she suggests: “make a deal with yourself: 80% of the time check what you are sharing. And take care of yourself as a consumer and a creator of content; don’t uncontrollably share, don’t fearmonger, but do be open, do discuss things. Acts of kindness online” are all ways to fight disinformation, she notes.

We end on this positive note: “MIL is really important right now. In creating a kind of civic consciousness in times of crisis. We need resilience and adaptability. From a disaster comes the opportunity to grow….”, says Maia. 

References/Resources:

Authors

Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.