Expert: Media literacy not “silver bullet” in fight against disinformation

It’s estimated that one-third of Czechs are vulnerable to disinformation and misinformation, says Veronika Víchová, an analyst at NGO the Centre for an Informed Society. But what’s the difference between the two, and what threat do they pose to Czech society? I put those questions to Víchová.

“A third of Czechs are vulnerable to both disinformation and misinformation. Often times, they cannot differentiate between what is disinformation and what is misinformation. The difference is in the intent of the person or entity that spreads these false narratives. But the person who is vulnerable and on the receiving end, may not know if there is mal intent or if it’s a mistake.”

Could you explain the difference between disinformation and misinformation further?

“They both describe objectively false information. Disinformation is spread with an intent to manipulate or change someone’s behaviour – the person who spreads it knows that it’s false. Misinformation can be an honest mistake, so it’s false, but there is not an intent of the spreader to manipulate or hurt someone.”

Within Czechia, what are the common topics or themes that disinformation is being spread about?

Veronika Víchová | Photo: Matěj Skalický,  Czech Radio

“In the last couple of months, the predominant topics are Ukraine and Ukrainian immigrants here in Czechia. The country accepted a lot of refugees, and there is a lot of disinformation and misinformation about how much money they get from the state, how many of them are working, and there is a lot of disinformation about the conflict itself.

“Before this, another big topic was Covid-19, and before that it was also Russia and Ukraine because of the event that took place in Vrbětice, and the refugee crisis from the Middle East and Africa.”

Are you able to tell who is spreading disinformation and misinformation within Czech society? Is it actors within Czech society or foreign actors?

“It’s most likely a combination of both. We don’t know the identities of every actor who spreads disinformation, many of them are not transparent. In most cases, it’s Czech citizens who have various motivations to spread disinformation. Sometimes, and there have been some confirmed cases by the security services, where Russian agents have tried to pay or persuade people with more influence – like journalists, activists, or politicians, to spread pro-Russian narratives. But very often, people do it on their own accord.”

How common is it that people spread misinformation by mistake? And what impact can that have?

But if you’re dis-informing, you do not care about the actual facts and arguments. If you continue to do it frequently and systematically, then it becomes really dangerous, because it’s no longer a discussion, it’s knowingly dis-informing someone and impacting their decision making.

“I think making mistakes is human nature, and it happens quite a lot. The difference is, if the person is notified and told that the information they are spreading is not true, if they will change what they say and think. If you’re a journalist, you issue a correction, if you’re talking to a friend, you admit that you were wrong. But if you’re dis-informing, you do not care about the actual facts and arguments. If you continue to do it frequently and systematically, then it becomes really dangerous, because it’s no longer a discussion, it’s knowingly dis-informing someone and impacting their decision making.”

Is there a role at all that social media is playing in metastasizing this problem?

“I don’t think the problem was created by social media and digital platforms, but it has enhanced the problem because it’s much easier to exchange information. It’s easier to have an influence over large amounts of people. People no longer are talking to their friends in a pub or cafe, you’re talking to hundreds of followers on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok – wherever you’re posting your content. So social media is making it much harder to fight against disinformation.”

What are a series of solutions that could mitigate the spread of disinformation and misinformation? Is media literacy at all part of the discussion as a way to improve the situation?

“Media literacy is a very important aspect, but it cannot be the only aspect, and there are multiple reasons for that. Firstly, whatever change we make within our education system is going to bear fruit in 20 years, and these are problems we are facing right now. The second reason is because it has been proven through research that media literacy is not a factor in spreading disinformation, people with high levels of media literacy, who do have a higher education are still prone to spreading disinformation and misinformation. Media literacy is not a silver bullet, we have to focus on it in order to build our resilience, but it’s not going to save the situation right at this moment.

Illustrative photo: memyselfaneye,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“The state should be able to communicate better with its citizens, we call that ‘strategic communication’, and it’s not PR or political communication: it’s institutional communication that will help people trust their institutions and democratic processes more. They need to be able to find information that is transparent and clear so they don’t have to go looking for alternative or speculative information.

“The state can also work with civil society when it doesn’t have its own capacities. Civil society can help with not only fact checking, but also with communication efforts or monitoring efforts. It has to be a combination, because disinformation and foreign interference is a comprehensive threat on various societal and state levels, and we need to respond to it the same way.”