The proliferation of user-generated content enabled by improved connectivity and access to digital platforms is unlocking new economic opportunities, while also fomenting disinformation and falsehoods with potentially deleterious effects on society. Misinformation and disinformation can erode the trust and credibility of our public institutions, inflict financial harm, embolden nefarious actors, and jeopardize governance. While misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena, the emergence of new digital platforms has enabled accelerated proliferation and reach, with implications across diverse sectors. Misinformation and disinformation can be omnipresent and not limited to politics, as they target value chains, consumers, and minority-owned businesses.

DAI has been on the frontlines countering misinformation and disinformation through our implementation of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s flagship Digital Frontiers (DF) buy-in mechanism, helping Missions and Operating Units implement USAID’s first-ever Digital Strategy, while charting an Agency-wide vision for development and humanitarian assistance in the world’s rapidly evolving digital landscape. Through our programs, we have heard from our cottage industry, micro-enterprises, and women-owned entrepreneurs, that while they have seen initial gains and results from digital literacy campaigns and training, disinformation and misinformation have rendered them vulnerable and deterred them from further engaging in the digital economy.

To better understand the trends in emerging markets specifically affecting economic development and small and medium enterprises, DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration and Alethea Group recently hosted a virtual roundtable on “Building Resilience Against Disinformation.” Participants discussed current trends in emerging markets, explored gaps and challenges in digital literacy and economic development programs, and identified new ideas and solutions for investment. The interactive roundtable included representatives from academia, technology firms, think tanks, and international development. The conversation was structured to examine the gap between sectors, learn more about innovative approaches that experts around the world are implementing to counter disinformation, and collaborate on ways to strengthen resilience and digital literacy as a part of a larger, multi-faceted approach.

We want to thank our co-hosts Alethea Group, development partners, and organizations involved in this roundtable, such as Omidyar Network India, CollaborateUp, Meedan, Global Engagement Center at the U.S. Department of State, IREX, Zinc Network, Jed Willard (Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University), and Ethan Zuckerman (University of Massachusetts Amherst Manning College of Information & Computer Sciences).

MDI Blog Photo.pngMisinformation and disinformation can be devastating for micro and small business entrepreneurs. Holistic media and information literacy training, like the session depicted here with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) can help increase critical thinking skills and sustain behavior change. Photo: DEF.

Here are several key takeaways and discussion points from the event:

Investment Must Be Multi-Sectoral

Misinformation and disinformation are indeed receiving investment, but most of the focus currently calls for election integrity and strengthening the media and journalism. Gaps exist for future investments and donor programming around providing support to small and micro enterprises in our networks to build their resilience against these threats. In implementing cyber and connectivity-related projects such as the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), we have witnessed the impact of misinformation and disinformation on our target beneficiaries—female and micro-entrepreneurs who have been ravaged by rampant falsehoods that have rendered them even more vulnerable. Small business and cottage industry entrepreneurs report that they are susceptible to fake sites requesting personal information, which has caused them to be fearful or reluctant to adopt digital payment options. Challenges in verifying information related to government benefit schemes or credit programs also invoke mistrust in pursuing digital products or opportunities. These various issues related to misinformation and disinformation can be devastating for entrepreneurs operating on razor-thin margins. Investment in broader economic development programs must incorporate countering misinformation and disinformation elements into program design to support all sectors affected by this growing challenge, in addition to the widely publicized democracy and governance environment.

Build Multi-Faceted and Holistic Digital Literacy Programs to Incite Real Behavior Change

People with higher digital literacy skills and heightened critical thinking skills are less likely to believe false claims. Incomplete digital literacy programs can inadvertently enable access to unsafe digital tools for business growth and vulnerable to disinformation campaigns, putting micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) at risk of losing all that they are working for and of losing trust in the very digital tools we have just given them access to. If we are working to incentivize MSMEs’ use of digital tools that allow them to build and scale their businesses, we then also have a moral imperative to find multi-faceted solutions that allow our beneficiaries to engage effectively, safely, and critically with these potentially life-saving tools. This will involve helping people build scrutiny and healthy skepticism about the information environment in which they work. Within the MSME community, holistic digital literacy programs must explore the key challenges affecting MSMEs’ value chain, their consumers, and the way they market on social media to advertise their products and services. Building nudges and tools for business owners and consumers, within their existing toolbox to differentiate between information, persuasion and manipulation could preempt potential attacks. Helping to train business leaders with ‘learn to discern’ skills can help them contribute to an ethical business and information environment.

Mix Human-Centered and Networked Approaches in Future Programming

When building out tools and research to counter misinformation and disinformation, a human-centered approach is critical to truly build awareness and skills to navigate the information ecosystem. Concurrently, a network centered approach may be deployed in the fight against propaganda and disinformation by: (i) identifying and investing in hyper-local networks comprised of community influencers and trusted messengers who are best positioned to redirect the public towards accurate sources of news and connecting these local partners to cross-border, regional, or even global initiatives; (ii) utilizing a whole-of-society approach through the establishment of networks comprised of influencers from across sectors; and (iii) facilitating collective action between international partner networks, creating rapid response mechanisms and force multipliers.

Public awareness campaigns that are infused with an understanding of our users, leverage creative communications through edutainment or music engaging well-known influencers, and are developed with sustained capacity building and training can lead to real changes in behavior. These human-centered approaches, done well, enhance the audience’s understanding of the issues and help them retain changed attitudes and behavior. We’ve also seen that a blended tech-and-touch approach, using a combination of remote digital tools and in-person training, provides a useful method to sustain learning.

Localize and Collaborate

Building resilience against disinformation requires collaboration and coherence to avoid piecemeal initiatives led in siloes by different sectors. We need to continue to foster a culture of collaboration and trust-building among the local tech sector, journalists, nongovernmental groups, and academia, for example, by training journalists and fact-checkers together and by convening local stakeholders to empower trusted messengers. Empowering local tech, industry associations, MSMEs, civil society organizations, and government to work together can build these sustained and critical feedback cycles of proactive and reactive engagement. Actors within the emerging technology sector can develop open algorithms, build interoperability between different platforms, and support transparency mechanisms to encourage user-centered interventions. Collaborating with local organizations to use these open source tools can build greater awareness of sources of disinformation, as well as create a feedback loop to identify and triage disinformation and misinformation. Donors can invest in strengthening the governance of open data sets in collaboration with government and regulatory agencies and internet service providers as part of the broader information ecosystem.

In addition, here are some key resources and projects:

Research and thought leadership: CollaborateUp and the Wilson Center recently published the “News Literacy and Misinformation/Disinformation in the Era of COVID-19 Report” report, providing five key trends and recommendations, drawing on the existing literature and expert insights and examples from forums and research, as well as the considerable expertise of their independent advisory board. USAID’s recently published Disinformation Primer provides a critical overview of disinformation culture to give readers a sense of key concepts, terminology, select case studies, and programmatic design options for the development community. Finally, IREX President Kristin Lord recently co-authored this article with Peter Singer, laying out steps such as agenda and coalition building, and catalyzing investment to counter disinformation.

Fact checking tools: Tools such as Meedan’s Check platform allows users to scale up fact-checking by engaging audiences where they are for factchecking, automating the collection and triage of claims, and scaling their response. Check’s algorithms take care of the most repetitive tasks, helping journalists focus on high-level editorial content. Meedan also ran a global fact-checking project using the WhatsApp Business API in 5 countries and 4 languages between 2019-2020. The End-to-End Fact-Checking Report and accompanying blog is based on nearly 5,700 fact-checks across India, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, offering core insights to scale Check for global newsrooms.

User-centered designed activities: Zinc Network integrates the private sector, user-centered design approaches, and audience-focused interventions to strengthen legitimacy, change the enabling environment, and protect against vulnerabilities within the information ecosystem. Its Open Information Partnership, a network of 70 different academics, think tanks, and researchers across Eurasia, monitors and researches hostile operations and helps partners turn this research into impactful interventions such as media exposés, behavioral and attitudinal campaigns, and advocacy and policy change. Zinc also launched an innovation challenge, awarding a tech company’s software platform to track public information on financial flows, corporate ownership, and public registries to assist with financial investigations.

Behavior change focus: The Omidyar Network India incorporates a behavioral change focus within its countering misinformation and disinformation programs and research to help build awareness and resilience. Examples include using radio and digital content, such as its large-scale Zindagi Mobile initiative, school curriculum development, and gamification tools to help users test assumptions and examine information carefully to better identify falsehoods, determine the source of the misinformation or disinformation, and learn ways to verify the information presented to them.

Training: The IREX Learn to Discern (L2D) - Media Literacy Training helps people of all ages develop healthy habits for engaging with information, online and offline. The curriculum integrates information literacy and digital security, emotional regulation and cognitive reflection, critical and analytical thinking, empathy, that try to combat manipulative information. IREX uses a variety of methods, including peer-to-peer workshops (in-person, virtual, and hybrid), key influencers, gamification, and play-based methods, to incite behavioral change and overcoming social incentives and cognitive bias. The training has helped Jordanian women and youth leaders to promote inclusive dialogue about the role of the internet in their communities and strengthened critical information consumption skills of Ukrainian local schools, community centers, and libraries to strengthen individuals’ critical information consumption skills.

DCCP is an interagency initiative, chaired by USAID and the State Department, that works with partner countries to support the development of communications infrastructure; promote transparent regulatory policies for open, competitive markets; and build partners’ cybersecurity and countering disinformation capacity to address shared threats through engagement with the private sector, government, and civil society. DCCP is part of DAI’s DF, which works closely with USAID Missions and Bureaus, the private sector, and international and local development organizations to identify successful and sustainable digital development approaches and scale their impact globally.