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July 26, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Access to Information Can Help Combat the Threat to Democracy

by Lynn Walsh

It seems no topic, conversation, or situation is off limits. Misinformation nonchalantly pops into news feeds. Disinformation seeps into family text exchanges. They casually insert themselves into conversations with friends. 

Elements, fragments, and remnants of misinformation and disinformation are everywhere. 

With more and more people actively avoiding the news while spending more time online and on social media, it’s easy to understand how inaccurate information is permeating every aspect of our lives. To combat misinformation, journalists, lawyers, the government, and other institutions need to work together.

Proliferation of misinformation causes confusion and frustration and contributes to increased polarization and distrust of democratic institutions.

Proliferation of misinformation causes confusion and frustration and contributes to increased polarization and distrust of democratic institutions.


The Spread of Misinformation and Disinformation

Merriam-Webster defines misinformation as “incorrect or misleading information.” The dictionary defines disinformation as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”

You’ve heard the warnings and seen the proof of the bad actors deliberately pushing false theories, remaking agenda-driven histories, and using made-up stories and claims to push people to break the law, cause unrest, and disrupt democracy.

The real and more dangerous threat though is when that disinformation gets fragmented and distributed in smaller portions, hidden in plain sight right next to actual facts. In bite-size quantities, it’s harder for people to see the false theories and made-up stories as ridiculous, especially when there is almost always an element of truth attached to them. 

The incorrect information hides in gifs, memes, jokes, podcasts, YouTube videos, online stories, and more. It’s then shared by people finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction, news from opinion, and trustworthy information sources from the bad actors aiming to deceive. 

The spread of misinformation and disinformation isn’t just happening due to a lack of fact-checking by the public though. Recent research shows people feel social pressure from their online circles to share information they see others sharing whether they know it is true or not. Most people don’t have malicious intent when sharing incorrect information, and some may share it because they just want to fit in, according to the researchers.

The sharing of incomplete narratives, half-truths, or just plain incorrect information leads to a less informed public. More and more of the information people are consuming lacks multiple perspectives, accurate context, or historical explanations. These lazy narratives lead to the localization of misinformation and extremism and contribute to misperceptions about whether justice has been done.

We’ve seen narratives pushed by individuals and television networks related to the lack of criminal prosecution of robberies and car thefts in “liberal cities” and blue states. The headlines and stories are based on facts (these crimes are occurring) but lack perspective and context and are written to further the agenda of the authors or politicians. These stories impact an individual’s perception of the cities and states (they are not safe to live in and are dangerous), but more importantly, they can impact an individual’s perception of the criminal justice system.

Does seeing these stories repeatedly lead to people reporting crimes more? Or does it have the opposite effect? Will people stop reporting crimes because they think nothing will happen if they do report them? Alternatively, maybe people start taking justice into their own hands. Why call the police and wait for them to arrive if the person is going to be released without being charged? This recently happened in San Francisco when a business owner sprayed a homeless woman because he said he felt it was his only option.

Lack of Confidence from the Public

The proliferation of misinformation causes confusion and frustration and contributes to increased polarization and distrust of democratic institutions.

Recent research and polls show distrust in government and other institutions continues to be on the decline. Just one-third of Americans say they have a “fair amount” of trust in newspapers, television, and radio news reporting, a near-record low, according to an October Gallup poll. Americans’ confidence in scientists, the government (all three branches, including the Supreme Court), the military, teachers, police, organized religion, and the criminal justice system has also decreased. 

Misinformation and disinformation have contributed to this distrust. When people do not feel confident the information they are consuming is helping them make decisions, they feel disempowered and can also become disinterested. This can lead to a lack of participation in civil duties like showing up for jury duty and voting in elections. It can also lead to people being less interested in the decisions judges are making, especially if they feel those decisions are one-sided or politically motivated. People then may not see the judgments as legal and begin acting without regard for the law or threat of potential consequence.


While this might sound like a doomsday scenario for democracy, credible information, and justice, there are things we all can do to prevent society from sinking into a world overwhelmed with misinformation and disinformation. 

Journalists are already trying to tackle the spread of misinformation and disinformation by bringing attention to it and setting the record straight. They do this by thinking carefully about how and when to cover it by identifying the “tipping point,” the moment false information spreading in a community can no longer be ignored. Journalists are using the “truth sandwich” approach when reporting on false information. The reporting strategy starts with the truth, explains the false information without amplifying it, and then repeats the truth—always repeating the truth more times than the false information. While doing this, journalists are also being trained to pay close attention to word choice and tone.

In addition to correcting false information and bringing attention to the damage it can cause, journalists are working to embrace transparency. Trusting News is using research and experiments with newsrooms to learn how people decide what news to trust. The organization has learned when journalists are transparent about their reporting process (why they choose to cover certain stories, how they fact-check, why they use certain experts, etc.), people are more likely to find the reporting trustworthy, believable, and credible. Also, according to Trusting News, if news organizations are transparent about who they are, how they are funded, and what they value, people are also more likely to trust them and their reporting.

In addition to transparency, journalists are working to involve their community in their reporting process. Most newsrooms are not as diverse as the communities they serve. This results in people not seeing themselves and their values reflected in story selection and news coverage decisions. By engaging with the public throughout the reporting process, journalists are able to produce content that better reflects their community and provides perspectives and context from more people, which can increase trust.

While not all journalists and news organizations are doing this, more are adopting these practices. In addition, these practices can be adopted by other organizations responsible for sharing information with the public, like government agencies, law offices, and judicial leaders. 

This could look like creating guides about how the court system works and making them easily accessible. This should also include making versions that are easy to share on social media and message apps like WhatsApp. Suppose we want people to have accurate information about how the criminal justice system works, what a new law means, how a ruling may impact them, or why serving on a jury is important. In that case, we have to provide that information and answer questions related to what people might not know about the topics and then make it easy to understand and easy to find. We also have to share that information where people are (which means online and on social media). 

If this doesn’t happen, people go searching for answers to questions related to these topics and don’t spend a lot of time fact-checking what they find. They read what shows up in the search results and move on. If that information is false information or tells only half the story, they may not know the difference. But, if we can make credible and accurate information easier to find, we can lower the likelihood of people finding false information.

Anyone publishing information can also commit to avoiding terms like “fake news.” Research has shown when politicians use the term and aim it at news organizations, it hurts the publication’s credibility. Based on this study, the researchers recommend journalists, government organizations, political leaders, and anyone sharing information avoid the term “fake news” and instead use terms like “misinformation.”

Successfully combating misinformation and disinformation will require journalists, the public, the government, politicians, lawyers, and technology companies to all work together. We will probably not always be on the same page, but we have to collaborate and help one another if we want to live in a world where we can operate on a shared set of facts.

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Lynn Walsh

Assistant Director of Trusting News

Lynn Walsh (she/her) is the assistant director of Trusting News and an Emmy award-winning journalist. She is the former ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and a past national president of the organization. Based in San Diego, she is also an adjunct professor and freelance journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @lwalsh.