Combating disinformation requires investments in group media

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Many of our social grievances can be traced back to disinformation systems that have spread through digital technologies and social media.

By Karthick Ramakrishnan, especially for CalMatters

Karthick Ramakrishnan is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Riverside and Director of the Center for Social Innovation, karthick@ucr.edu. He is also a member of the Media In Color Advisory Board.

The January 6 attack on the US Capitol exposed many gaping gaps in the foundations of our democracy, including the role of digital media platforms in exacerbating and arming disinformation.

Indeed, many of our societal ills – the mainstreaming of white nationalism, the loss of parties attacking the legitimacy of certified elections, and growing distrust of electoral and health systems – can be traced back to disinformation systems being spread through digital technology and social media have spread.

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As the new term of Congress begins, there will be strong pressure to regulate social media. Cross-party concerns about the concentration of information power in companies like Facebook and Google has been brewing for some time, with the growing realization that we cannot simply rely on digital media companies to regulate themselves. Indeed, Twitter’s recent decision to permanently suspend President Donald Trump from his platform has reinforced calls for more democratic accountability for such follow-up decisions.

At the same time, we cannot rely on regulation alone. Not only must we stop the virulent spread of disinformation through digital media, we also need to invest in producing good, reliable information that can fill the void.

Think of disinformation as weeds that have flooded our gardens and suffocated many valuable plants. Our immediate instincts might be to focus on weed removal and weed prevention, both of which are important. However, in order for our gardens to thrive again, we must also take care to rehabilitate damaged plants, grow new ones, and perhaps even change our irrigation systems to meet our current needs.

Similarly, we urgently need to be careful to invest in community media – local media as well as “ethnic media” or “media of color” – to build an ecosystem of reliable and trustworthy news that can serve the needs of our 21st century democracy . There are already some significant efforts in place, such as the American Journalism Project, which has an original fundraising target of $ 50 million, to provide investments and in-kind contributions to 35 nonprofit news organizations across the country. Facebook, too, has taken some significant steps by providing $ 25 million in grants to support more than 200 local news organizations.

However, these efforts are tiny compared to the scale of the problem. Researchers from the University of North Carolina found a decline of 1,800 newspapers between 2004 and 2018, with the losses in suburban and rural areas being particularly acute. They also point to the rise of “ghost newspapers” which contain very little local or regional news. Other studies have shown the alarming growth of national printing networks, regularly posting disinformation to hundreds of locations, while political science research has shown that the loss of local coverage in California has reduced mayoral candidate competition and turnout.

Given the scale of the challenges, we need solutions that can be easily scaled across the country. One promising option is to reinvest in community media clusters, which were shown to be critical to messaging and outreach in the 2020 census. For example, the state of California has allocated more than $ 46 million to its public relations and census outreach campaign, with a focus on local ethnic media, to “build a base of trustworthy messengers, break down language barriers for non-English speakers, and culturally encourage appropriate engagement within communities. ”

Dozens of community media organizations have coordinated and collaborated in regions such as the Inland Empire, Central Valley, and Los Angeles County. These census media coalitions built valuable relationships and expertise, and laid the groundwork for trusted community messengers that can be activated to address new issues such as housing insecurity and vaccine reluctance.

In addition to these local efforts to support trusted media carriers, we also need to find nationwide and national solutions for news agencies that serve color communities. Many of these “ethnic media” have had problems transitioning to digital models and some are threatened with extinction from the recent economic downturn.

With the support of CalMatters and various leading companies in the fields of media, research and philanthropy, a new collaboration and digital platform called Media In Color is underway. This initiative will provide digital tools, technical support, and executive research and development to various news outlets serving color communities. For ethnic media to be fully successful, efforts like this and others require significant financial support from philanthropy and government.

Perhaps regulation and financing could meaningfully overlap here. When congressional and state governments consider social media regulations that better suit the needs of our democracy, they should also consider funding mechanisms such as media royalties and general taxes that can support the development and growth of media that serve the community. Furthermore, the Biden government’s desire to “rebuild better” should address not only energy and transportation infrastructure projects, but also community civic infrastructure, including reliable voting systems and trustworthy, well-stocked community news media.

Investing in more good information and regulating the spread of disinformation will be key to the future health of our democracy, from the US Capitol to state houses and local communities.

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Karthick Ramakrishnan has also written about how the 2020 census brought different organizations together to build stronger communities.

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