Listening past the noise: a roundup of Stefan and Samar’s disinformation and transport decarbonisation webinar.

Back in the 80’s, seatbelt laws and anti-drink driving laws came into effect. And what were they met with? Outrage. Retaliation ranged from calling the new laws ‘undemocratic’ and ‘communist’ to claims that the government were ‘replacing the free will of individuals with the desires of the state.’ Even in the 80’s, it seems, misinformation was rife.

With the disdainful perspective of hindsight, reading retorts such as these might seem somewhat amusing. The same could be said about the more recent, niche online parties spreading disinformation about 5G phone masts. However, if you were to read some of the current narratives surrounding legislation to decarbonise travel, that amusement quickly slides to trepidation. As unrest ripples through society, it has become abundantly clear that misinformation narratives these days are no laughing matter.

In their recent webinar, Lynn’s Heads of The Misinformation Cell and Lynn Planet, Stefan Rollnick and Samar Khanna, discussed why decarbonisation misinformation narratives are so potent in our day and age, and what we can do to stop them. The first question, then, is: why are disinformation narratives so potent?

Attack on personal freedoms

Autonomy is often at the heart of disinformation messaging. When ‘scanning the horizon’ for what areas are vulnerable to being colonised by conspiracy theories and disinformation narratives, threat to freedom is what sticks. Disinformation sites and sources use this vulnerability to push their own agenda, opportunistically preying on people’s fear of losing their free will. 

For instance, think back to the disinformation narratives of the COVID pandemic. Some involved microchips which would be planted via vaccination. Others agilely reframed the 5G phone mast conspiracy. All sowed seeds of government and corporate distrust from the vulnerable perspective of personal health and freedom. The results? Refusal to quarantine, to social distance, and a reluctance to get vaccinated.

A vocal minority

Despite the noise and widespread results, it’s important to note that it is only a few key players write the majority of adversarial narratives on virtual platforms. Indeed, it’s easy to believe that the opinions on social media are the opinions of the majority. However, with 10% of Twitter users creating 80% of its content, it’s true when we say that this is not representative of popular opinion – it just appears that way.

That’s why understanding when, where and how to respond to these narratives is crucial for communicators and policymakers. Sometimes we might blow up a storm when it’s easier to let it blow itself out on its own.

Spread of disinformation

Content creators profit from the spread of disinformation. This is because social networks and ad platforms have financial incentives to monetise content, even if it is from disinformation websites. Take Google AdSense, for example. This tool pays websites to display ads to visitors. And, of course, the more visitors, the more money the website makes. Google doesn’t discriminate over sites with real or fake news, harmless or harmful; it only posts.

The spread of misinformation has another tool working in its favour: the reward mechanisms of social media. Its algorithms promote content which has the most engagement, and users are ‘rewarded’ (by social interaction and recognition) when their own posts receive more engagement. These algorithms contribute to fringe disinformation narratives making their way into the mainstream.

‘Meet people where they are’

How do we communicate with our audiences? Not on Twitter! There are communities which have legitimate concerns about proposed policies and others who sit in the undecided middle. Understanding how and why they might be vulnerable to disinformation will allow you to engage with them proactively and protect them from disinformation. 

For instance, a big form of vulnerability is information gaps. Therefore, trying to address as much of the information vacuum as soon as possible is important. Look at Ukraine, for instance: getting the correct information out there as soon as possible was imperative before disinformation could colonise the space. We often find that fact checking lies is less effective than engaging audiences with compelling narratives and deeper truths.

Listen past the noise

It’s important to remember that we, as communicators, can only do so much. That’s why we should put down what is within our control and what is not in concrete at the start of each campaign. It will help you build an effective counter-misinformation strategy. 

What is in our control is listening past the noise. Because the noise – however loud it may sometimes be – can be insightful. So, survey the noise and narratives – using the Wall of Beliefs toolkit – to analyse how core they are to someone’s belief system and how likely they are to cause real-world harm.

Keep going

Embed the insights gained from your analysis in your communications to inoculate the public from mis/disinformation. We need to tell our story in a way which is compelling, confident and honest. Don’t let potential backlash from loud but small groups stop you from pressing on.

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