Campaigners and communities engaged in struggles for progressive change have long had to face media distortions and publicity operations aimed at promoting backlashes and demobilising their bases of support.
In recent times the tide of disinformation and misinformation has swelled, necessitating an increasing focus on how counter-movement tactics can be dealt with and nullified.
Participants and facilitators at the recent When Facts Fail: How We Fight Misinformation workshop held during Progress Australia’s 2021 FWD+Organise conference reported having to deal with a plethora of threats emanating from mainstream and social media. Marginalised communities are increasingly being targeted for misinformation as well as by it. Many organisations are having to lock down and actively monitor their online posts and groups to respond to spamming and targeting by those seeking to misinform and mislead members and the broader public. Fake unions and other organisations have been set up to divide existing movements and draw away potential supporters. Framing and narratives regarding climate justice, public health, immigration, and other issues have been hijacked and hollowed out by those seeking to stymie change.
As in other areas of life, those with the greatest access to financial and other resources are using those advantages to further entrench their power. This has been facilitated by tech giants whose engagement-based business models draw profit from misinformation.
A lack of meaningful regulation in Australia and elsewhere, on the part of governments and the companies themselves, has entrenched the trend. In attempting to debunk disinformation many journalists and others often wind up inadvertently amplifying it.
During the workshop, Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran (Reset Australia) and Chris Cooper (Purpose) discussed ways in which their organisations have begun to organise responses in the Australian context. They are drawing on proven models from citizen coalitions in the US and Germany which have involved teams of social researchers and campaigners building disinformation threat matrixes to identify the impact and consequences of existing and looming issues. Depending on the content and level of threat, tailored responses can include reports to authorities, de-platforming, pre and post-bunking, or, if the threat level is negligible, leaving the situation alone. Campaigns for tighter regulation of social media platforms are seen as a crucial element of countering disinformation.
Bridget Todd (UltraViolet / There Are No Girls on the Internet podcast) spoke about her experiences in the US, where the Disinfo Defense League has brought together a variety of progressive groups and communities. Acting in a coalition was identified as being crucial in any effort to push back against division. The need to get ahead of the opposition and to pre-empt attacks, as well as to be highly reactive when they arise, often made it difficult to act strategically. However, working as a coalition helped overcome this through the sharing of resources, ideas, and knowledge. It also assisted campaigners to identify where to best put resources while avoiding issues that didn’t need to be immediately addressed.
Effective campaigning involved producing and promoting relevant and useful information on topics rather than engaging in debunking efforts that amplified negative content. Through the use of a report card, a strong set of demands, lobbying, and other means, the coalition had compelled some major tech companies to engage in dialogue regarding their practices and also forced a pause on the release of a version of Instagram for those under the age of 13.
Useful resources suggested by Bridget included:
- Reporting in an Era of Disinformation
A guide for journalists, content creators, and consumers regarding how to respond to, and avoid amplifying, disinformation and racist and sexist tropes and stereotypes.
Details of policy recommendations and a campaign fighting to make the internet safe for all women.
- The Race Class Narrative Project
A project which developed an empirically-tested narrative on race and class that resonated with working people and offered an alternative to—and neutralized the use of—’dog-whistle’ racism.
- Fuelling Fantasies
A report about how the advertising world is hindering climate action and protecting major polluters.
- Disinfo Defense League
Information about this coalition’s policy platform and campaigns.
About Conference and Speakers
FWD+Organise 2021 was a conference held by Australian Progress for community organisers and digital campaigners from across Australia and Aotearoa to share practical skills, learn innovative approaches to advocacy and build lasting collaborations to win systemic change. Sessions included keynotes, workshops, masterclasses, and expert briefings. Access other conference sessions here.
Bridget Todd (UltraViolet / There Are No Girls on the Internet podcast)
Bridget Todd (she/her) got her start teaching courses on writing and social change at Howard University. Since then, she’s trained human rights activists in Australia, led strategy for organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, and MSNBC, and ran a training program for political operatives the Washington Post called “the Hogwarts of the Democratic Party.” She’s questioned Obama about policy on MTV and been on the Daily Show. Previously, she worked with AFROPUNK, a music and culture festival, to produce a global salon where she’s hosted folks like Angela Davis, Ava Duvernay, and #MeToo creator Tarana Burke. Currently, Bridget is the communications director for the gender justice organiSation UltraViolet. Her critically acclaimed tech and culture podcast There are No Girls on the Internet won a Shorty Award for a miniseries exploring disinformation.
Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran (Reset Australia)
Dhakshayini (she/they) is a proud Tamil whose ancestral lands are in the north and east of Illankai (known as Sri Lanka). They are the tech policy director at Reset Australia, a think-tank focused on digital threats to democracy. Dhakshayini is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) exploring race, surveillance and digital identification systems. She is a former civil engineer who has founded and led several non-profit organisations and projects focused on communities of colour in Australia and the Pacific. They have worked on migration (as the former Director of Human Rights and Racial Justice at the ACCR), climate change (with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Fiji), and with young people (as the founder of YLab).
Chris Cooper (Purpose)
Chris (he/him) is Senior Campaign Director at Purpose, a global social impact agency, where he brings over a decade of experience in strategic communications and advocacy to a wide range of issues including misinformation and tech regulation, public health, and climate change. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, he has worked with activists, civil society, and the private sector to leverage culture and storytelling to shape policy, behaviour and systems. He is also Executive Director of Reset Australia, a policy think tank working to counter digital threats to democracy – specifically the harms caused by unregulated big tech.
- Australian Progress (Conference)
- Coronavirus infections_COVID 19 (Disease)
- FWD + Organise 2021 (Australian Progress Conference - Australia)
- Media - Political aspects