We need to value and support the critical work of journalists countering the mis- and disinformation flooding our communications channels, especially during crises, conflicts, and elections. The good news is that when the media and civil society work together, they create a better information climate – and a healthier civic space – for us all.
The bad news is that information pollution is at an all-time-high.
This is never more true than in times of crisis, when our news feeds fill with a torrent of ‘information’ – much of which is incorrect, misleading, or straight-up fabricated.
The good news is that creative partnerships between media and civil society are tackling this scourge head on, around the world, year-round, helping keep our communities informed and better equipped to engage with issues that improve their lives.
For example, Bellingcat is using its distributed, collaborative model to correct the torrent of fake stories and videos circulating about the war in Ukraine.
Many civil society organisations have partnered with journalists and media outlets to debunk conspiracy theories, as well as to ensure that critical and accurate information gets to people so they can keep themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Others are supporting and working with journalists to defend the democratic process – exposing and correcting weaponized disinformation that aims to mislead voters and suppress voting during elections in every region of the world.
To share just one of many such projects, Fact-Check Ghana works to counter the proliferation of fake news, misinformation, and propaganda in West Africa, especially during elections, political debates, and public health and other emergencies.
On this World Press Freedom Day, let’s take a beat to think about our information climate, where media fit in, and what this means for the rest of us.
Journalists are perhaps most visible to many of us as purveyors of news. They also provide essential access to reliable, accessible, accurate, fact-checked information that helps inform the decisions that shape our lives and our societies.
Increasingly, media are under-resourced, forced offline, tied up by strategic lawsuits brought against them by the wealthy and powerful, demeaned and smeared by prominent public figures, threatened, harassed, jailed, and assaulted by tyrants.
This stems the flow of vital and reliable information, and we all lose. It leaves a huge gap, too easily filled by social media – a massive breeding ground for disinformation, as well as a business model that works by reinforcing, and ultimately polarizing and entrenching points of view based on opinion and lies, instead of facts.
The result is an information climate so chaotic we lose confidence in our ability to distinguish truth from lies. This makes us more receptive to easy, bite-sized answers to very real, very complicated problems.
This plays out well for the autocrats. They are more than happy to provide the easy answers while conveniently blaming those who are best-placed to challenge those false narratives. They demonize the media, endangering journalists with caustic rhetoric aimed at chipping away their credibility with the public – leaving free and independent media in the lurch, and under threat.
This is where civil society comes in: supporting, elevating, and promoting the work of journalists, highlighting our collective need for information integrity, and denouncing practices aimed at undermining the press freedom on which it relies.
This is one of the best and most essential protections we can provide the media – to make sure that people continue to value information, and have confidence in it. To challenge laws that hobble their work. To promote their safety, and to advocate tirelessly for justice when they are assaulted with impunity.
We are not naïve. We know there are bad actors in every institution, and the media are no exception. But when it comes to ensuring our right to information, the media are our greatest allies – and we need to be theirs.
As we mark World Press Freedom Day 2022, civil society must redouble our efforts to defend press freedom. In these times, we need it to not only survive – but thrive.
We are in it for the long haul. We have to be.
Annie Game is the Executive Director of IFEX, a global network that promotes and defends freedom of expression and information as a fundamental human right. IFEX is a nexus for free expression expertise contributed by over 120 member-organisations, spanning 90 countries and committed to collaboration and transformative advocacy.