How should think tanks deal with the problem of misinformation?

For many people, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 was a wake-up call. If groups like QAnon seemed far-away and abstract before, they don’t anymore: We have now watched on television as the real-world results of the misinformation and disinformation campaigns that have been working to divide us—and divide reality itself—played out for all to see. 

What role do think tanks play in fighting misinformation? WonkComms recently convened two expert panels to explore this.

If you missed the first webinar in February with Sarah Bressan from the Global Public Policy Institute and Lindsay Gorman from the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, watch the video here. It’s a fantastic primer on the elements of misinformation campaigns that make it such a difficult yet crucial problem for think tanks to address.

The tl;dr: 

  • Misinformation is nothing new, but technology has supercharged it. 
  • It’s easier to be a bad actor than a good one: authoritarians just have to sow the seeds of mistrust and polarization, defenders of democracy actually have to tell the complicated truth and defend reality itself. 
  • Think tanks, as they work to counteract misinformation, are also prime targets of it. It’s complicated.

Building on this foundation, the RAND Corporation’s Jennifer Kavanagh and New America’s Peter Singer joined WonkComms for a second webinar on March 11 to lay out how their organizations are currently working to combat misinformation and how other think tanks should approach this thorny problem.

Here are some of our favorite quotes from these eminently quotable experts:

“[Social media is] not just a force for good, it’s also a battlefield.” 

– Peter Singer
Slide from Peter Singer's WomkComms presentation
From Peter Singer’s presentation

Misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories have fueled extremism and made the world more dangerous, and social media is increasingly where the battle is playing out. Think tanks are working to understand social media as a weapon–in their own hands too. It’s not just a tool for bad actors, it’s also an open source of intel that researchers can use to identify and track misinformation and disinformation.

But it doesn’t stop there. Think tanks are also trying to understand and shape the networks themselves, and to inoculate the system itself through education and media literacy–arguably the most important and least supported area for future work.

How do think tanks help educate users online?

“It’s about storytelling.” 

– Jennifer Kavanagh

Civic education and media literacy are an important focus for the RAND Corporation, along with disinformation, the news and social media landscape, and democratic institutions.

But for think tanks and researchers who are used to communicating with a small circle of policy experts, Kavanagh brings the truth: Part of what think tanks must do is find new ways to reach people through something other than long reports. 

Of course think tanks are capable of producing high quality research, but making information relatable and digestible to a range of audiences outside of the traditional academic communities requires finding new ways of presenting scientific evidence. It’s hard, she admits, but that’s the way we succeed.

“Truth decay is a system.” 

– Jennifer Kavanagh
Slide from Jennifer Kavanagh's WonkComms presentation
From Jennifer Kavanagh’s presentation

Misinformation and disinformation are part of the story when it comes to the war on truth, but it’s the context in which they are spreading that makes them extremely dangerous and hard to counter—the cognitive processing and biases that make us human, changes in the information environment such as new trends in journalism, competing demands on the education system, and polarization that allows misinformation to thrive.

Truth decay hits us across all issues, from politics to health to the economy and beyond. If we don’t have a set of facts that we all agree on, we can’t have debates on policy priorities—we’re too busy having debates about reality.

“Leaders don’t lurk.” 

– Peter Singer

These words of wisdom that Singer first intended for military leaders are also relevant to researchers who are worried about whether to engage personally on social media. The think tanks doing the most rigorous research have to be out there in the war of ideas, and individual researchers may be the most effective voices for presenting and defending their own work. 

So yes, by all means engage, but follow some best practices: Engage regularly to build an audience, build communities of interest to carry your work forward, be authentic (and personal sometimes), lift up other voices, and be provocative. 

In other words, tell a story.

Did you miss the conversation? Watch it online here and share your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WonkComms.

Elena joined Soapbox as a content designer after more than seven years in the think tank space as director of email marketing and audience relations at the Center for American Progress. Prior to that, she spent several years working with progressive organisations as a digital strategy consultant and a communications specialist. Elena earned a BA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and brings a love of language and a respect for audiences to all of her projects.

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