Information Vertigo: How the social sector can build credibility to counter effects of disinformation

Alix Dunn

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was considerable enthusiasm about the impact that networked peer-to-peer relationships would have on political organising. The internet would change the way we interacted locally, politically, and socially.

The power of ‘weak ties’ with more people, and the deepening of our ties with close connections, would usher in something new. We would rely less on institutions and more on each other to plan action, engage locally, and inform our thinking. Fast forward two decades, and that promise of new formations of institutional ties was surely realised. People power has been reimagined and reconstituted, as the organising principle of communities has been fundamentally changed by a new digital fabric.

How people organise isn’t just about how they vote, organise, and engage. It is also how they make sense of the world. We can’t be experts in everything, but as our information environment evolves, we feel pressure to be. Pressure to sort through the waves of information; pressure to triangulate, fact-check, and discern. And in response to this feeling of pressure, there have been cries (some literal) that we are in a post-truth world.

But truth is not a mound of facts. A flood of fake information proliferated by clickbait business models does not drown truth. Unless you are an experimental scientist, you know something to be true if you see it, or if someone you trust says it is true. This is where the modern information environment starts to wreak havoc. People get bad information from politicians who are incentivised to lie (nothing new there). People get information from the media who are incentivised by commercial pressures (not new, but new in its near pervasiveness).

People get false information from their social networks (this is new in its scale). That is it. That is where people get their information. So, it’s no wonder they feel like truth is dead. It seems everyone is either lying, sharing bad information, or assaulting us with clickbait.

It’s not truth that is dead. It is credibility that is broken.

This is where the social sector comes in. Organisations that act in the public interest, and work to organise communities around common causes have the credibility to ground us. And yet it is rare to see public interest institutions with forceful credibility, engage with the broader public through media channels that the public actually uses.

Why does this matter for The Engine Room? We believe that activists, social change organisations, and change agents are the infrastructure of positive social change. And if they are to succeed, they must be credible.

To be credible, organisations must demonstrate facts to make their case. They must collect and share information about issues that matter and be transparent about their operations. And they must effectively engage with new audiences. In our current information ecosystem, credibility is a revolutionary act. It is also a tall order.

We believe that to do this, it is key to transform our organisations and efforts to use data and technology strategically. Effective use of data and technology can underpin processes that turn facts into knowledge, knowledge to truth, and truth into trust. We work to support organisations to build a bedrock of knowledge, and use that knowledge to engage, inform, and excite publics. Whether it’s working with Amnesty to reimagine their engagement with volunteers, or partnering with extractive industry accountability organisations in southern Africa to demonstrate what is possible when big oil contracts and licenses are aggregated and organised.

Rather than reject or bemoan the new information environment, we believe it is a new opportunity for the social sector to find power and relevance. And through that, we will do our little bit to change the world.

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