Last month, NPQ hosted a dynamic conversation about a critical problem of our time: The role of disinformation and misinformation in civil society.
The webinar, Combating Disinformation and Misinformation in 21st Century Social Movements, centered on the nature of disinformation and misinformation, their impact on democratic struggles for justice, and strategies for fighting false narratives in a complex information ecosystem.
The event was organized by current NPQ fellow, Shanelle Matthews, the Movement for Black Lives’ Director of Communications and founder of the Radical Communicators Network. Matthews drew on her knowledge of radical social movements and her wealth of experience as a communicator and organizer to convene a thoughtful panel on a topic that couldn’t be more relevant given everything happening in the US in 2022: the January 6th hearings and investigation into last year’s failed insurrection, voter suppression ahead of upcoming midterm elections, a spate of mass shootings, the coronavirus pandemic, inflation’s impact on people’s everyday lives, and talk of a looming recession.
A rich and insightful conversation ensued among the panelists, threading together several urgent issues for leftist and progressive social movements: the growth of white supremacist movements in the US, and with them, anti-Black violence, anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives, anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, attacks on abortion rights and reproductive justice, the scapegoating of immigrant workers, and so much more.
Framing the Problem
The problem of disinformation can feel vast and overwhelming. Matthews began by acknowledging this, noting that she was eager to learn from the panelists and share best practices.
The conversation began with an overview of disinformation’s and misinformation’s various forms, which can include everything from viral misinformation to deep fakes, conspiracy theories, and state sanctioned propaganda. These false narratives generate political and social conflict, as Matthews pointed out: “One of the aims of the contemporary disinformation movement is the erosion of democratic ideals. And one of the aims of the progressive and leftist social movement is to realize democratic and socially democratic ideals, so we are at odds.”
Although the distinction between disinformation and misinformation rests on the political intentions of those who are sharing false content, they both result in significant harm.
Matthews invited a specialist in the field, Jacquelyn Mason, the Director of Programs at Media Democracy Fund, to explain the difference between disinformation and misinformation before diving into how they impact social movements and democracy.
Misinformation, according to Mason, is “false content, but the person sharing doesn’t realize the content is false or misleading.” She provided an example of this: False information about cures and remedies for COVID-19 pre-vaccine distribution. The people who shared this misinformation on social media were trying to help themselves and others. In contrast, she defined disinformation as “content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm within communities.” Often spread to make money or for political gain, disinformation creates chaos within an information ecosystem.
The lines get blurred, however: Because of the way that content is rapidly disseminated and shared—in traditional media and social media—disinformation can quickly turn into misinformation shared by well-meaning people. Although the distinction between disinformation and misinformation rests on the political intentions of those who are sharing false content, they both result in significant harm.
Online Disinformation’s Racist Impact
On this point, Mason noted that misinformation and disinformation have disproportionate effects on communities of color.
First, the media often frames people of color as being more susceptible to misinformation—whether through targeting or being more prone to believing it—but she says this is “an extreme falsehood.” Given the history of racial injustice in US medicine, Mason said, “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have legitimate reasons to be skeptical of information given the legacy of historical traumas we faced in our communities related to vaccines and civic participation.” That trauma is compounded by ongoing medical racism: Mason cited examples of people who were turned away from the hospital during the pandemic and the death of Dr. Susan Moore, a Black medical doctor who cared for COVID patients but was denied treatment and died.
Combatting misinformation requires trust. Mason described how the Disinformation Defense League—a network of organizations dedicated to fighting disinformation that affects communities of color—develops trusted sources by working with people who are grounded in community spaces, like barbershops and churches, and training them in best practices for narrative change on issues like voting and health care.
Then, Mason zeroed in on a particularly dangerous form of disinformation identified by information experts and academics. “Online racialized disinformation” is false content about racial justice issues that is shared online and designed “to deceive or manipulate the public for the purpose of achieving profit, political gain, and/or sustaining white supremacy.” Its proponents wield many different tactics—including incitements to hate, stereotypes, wedge issues, harassment, and infiltrating groups—to undermine democratic institutions and movements for social justice. Noting how bots were used to impersonate Black people online ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, Mason said, “Online racialized disinformation not only creates and reinforces inequalities; it also consolidates power among politicians, wealthy individuals, and media and technology companies.”
Old Narratives, New Tactics
The discussion continued with Matthews tracing the ways in which the US government used disinformation in the 20th century to delegitimize radical social movements, beginning with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) “radical division,” created after WWI for counterintelligence and investigations used to dismantle the Communist Party, to 50 years later, when the FBI used anonymous mailings to create and exploit conflicts among Black liberation organizations in the late 1960s—ultimately leading to the violent deaths of Black Panther Party members.
While disinformation is not new, the scale of the problem has grown with the rapid spread of digital communications technologies over the past three decades—and it’s become especially apparent in the past 10 years.
Much of that same strategy and infrastructure has continued to be used in the 21st century, Matthews noted. Of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit’s designation of the Black Lives Matter activists as “Black Identity Extremists,” she said: “They used acts of violence that were wholly unrelated to BLM to justify targeting Black dissident voices. And their goal, broadly, was to categorize Black activists as threats to national security, justifying an intensification of government surveillance, domination, and punishment.”
Tackling disinformation today requires nuanced political analysis and strategic communication because “the use of propaganda to delegitimize social movements is not a new tactic, but we’re living in different times and under different conditions.”
While disinformation is not new, the scale of the problem has grown with the rapid spread of digital communication technologies over the past three decades—and it’s become especially apparent in the past 10 years.
As a result, Black liberation movements are contending with new forms of disinformation in the 21st century. Matthews says, for example, that “Russian operatives were working overtime to stir discord related to America’s long standing racial divides by infiltrating online communities of the Black Lives Matter movement and, even to a more severe degree, the online groups frequented by ordinary people.”
Still, newer forms of disinformation continue to use an “obstinate and ubiquitous” element of mis- and disinformation: racist, homophobic, sexist, and transphobic tropes that “dehumanize and justify oppression, violence, and social exclusion.”
The Rise of Anti-Trans Disinformation
The next speaker extended the discussion of disinformation tropes by focusing on sexuality and gender. Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center—the largest national trans-led organization in the US—discussed how the resurfacing of old homophobic and transphobic tropes in public discourse impacts today’s trans liberation movement.
Hayashi connected the fight for trans liberation to society’s broader failures. While the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and the rise of white supremacist and anti-democratic forces all reveal the failure to value people and their humanity, trans communities were already struggling to survive and have their basic needs met while facing high rates of discrimination and violence.
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The growing visibility of trans people in the past decade has, in fact, been accompanied by increased anti-trans violence. The details Hayashi provided were sobering: “Every year for the last few years has been the most reported murders of trans people in the US, of which the majority are Black trans women and femmes.” The bombardment of anti-trans rhetoric and legislation also has disturbing psychological consequences for trans children and their families and trans people more broadly—especially for a community that already faces high rates of suicide and other mental health conditions. Hayashi said that trans leaders in Texas have already observed an increase in suicides that can be pinpointed to the state’s criminalization of gender-affirming care. Such overt antipathy to trans and queer people has emboldened hate groups, including white nationalists who attacked drag queen story hours at Pride celebrations last month.
This is not a question of individual bias; it’s a backlash organized at the state level. Hayashi described how the conservative right mobilized two disinformation narratives to promote anti-trans legislation and policies more than a decade ago.
In the first example, anti-trans activists and legislators ramped up their efforts in 2014-2015 with so-called “bathroom bills” in states like North Carolina, creating a moral panic by presenting images of men in girls’ bathrooms. These images invoked an old homophobic trope, now updated for 21st century transphobia: trans women as potential sexual predators or “groomers”—a term that refers to “someone who builds a relationship of trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so that they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them.” In anti-trans rhetoric, this false narrative frames parents, teachers, and “anyone who cares for, supports, loves a trans child, as being a groomer.”
The second example is a newer disinformation narrative emerging around trans participation in competitive sports. It posits that trans girls and trans women have an unfair advantage in girls’ and women’s sports. Whether the battlefield is women’s bathrooms or sports, anti-trans narratives and their claims rely on essentialist notions of gender to falsely assert that “trans women are men, that trans women are not women.”
After Trump was elected, Hayashi recalled, the right-wing attack on trans people moved to the federal level. The administration rolled back the few rights and protections available to trans people, in an attempt “to deny our humanity and ultimately to deny our very existence, as they did for so many communities” at that time. But with a new Democratic administration, these attacks have moved back to the states. Hayashi explains that the amount of legislation is unprecedented: In the past year alone, 33 states advanced 150 anti-trans bills—seven times the number of bills introduced at the height of the “bathroom bills” panic. The proposed bills—and those that have passed—range from those that deny gender-affirming care to trans children and youth, to bans on trans participation in women’s sports, to prohibitions on naming the existence of queer and trans people in schools, as with Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The Mainstreaming of White Supremacist Ideology
Matthews noted another false narrative, the great replacement theory, “a racist and xenophobic, often anti-Semitic conspiracy narrative that falsely asserts that there is an active and ongoing covert effort to replace white populations in current white majority cities with people of color through either immigration or reduction of birth rates for white women.” Past iterations of this narrative have led to forced sterilization, racial quota systems, and restrictive federal immigration laws. And it’s been used more recently to justify mass anti-Black violence: The Buffalo shooter was an obsessive online proponent of replacement theory.
Joseph Phelan, Executive Director of Reframe, spoke about the impact of this white supremacist propaganda on leftist and progressive social movements.
Modeling one strategy for combatting disinformation, he began with a story about the political trajectory of a former mentor. As an unpaid organizer activist and self-described “working-class kid from the suburbs of New York City,” Phelan worked in carpentry and construction to pay the bills. His mentor was an older white man, and as their conversations and relationship deepened, Phelan encouraged his mentor to take greater action to fight white supremacy; this included marching with a coalition of people against the war in Iraq in the early 2000s and facing down the police, engaging other white people in conversations about racism, and at a local level, learning to speak Spanish and employing day laborers at more equitable wages.
Over the years, however, as Phelan became a nonprofit professional and stopped making cabinets, he and his mentor saw less of one another. They grew apart, and his mentor’s views shifted further and further to the right. Considering why this happened, Phelan explained that the (re)emergence of right-wing narratives—like replacement theory and the scapegoating of immigrants and women—is appealing to working-class white men like his former mentor because they tell him that “his failures are not his.” The interlinking of these false narratives, he argued, is how white supremacist ideology gets mainstreamed.
In telling this story, Phelan emphasized the importance of organizing, which he characterized as “contesting for power at the individual and group level.” The contest for power is a struggle over meaning, which means that “Organizing is going to be the best defense and offense,” as it’s “the construction of authentic relationships where we share worldviews.”
Noting that delegitimizing dominant narratives is core to building narrative power, Matthews raised important questions about the gap between understanding the problem of disinformation narratives and taking concrete actions to undermine such narratives’ legitimacy: Is the right information getting to the people it needs to reach? How do we communicate with mass engagement in mind?
Reframing False Narratives
Turning to these questions, the next speaker discussed the importance of reframing false narratives. Sabrina Joy Stevens, an expert in using values-driven narrative techniques, discussed how to help organizers do a better job of spreading information and narratives that neutralize misinformation and disinformation.
Despite growing awareness of the power of stories and increased boldness in telling them, many people assume that “truth will cancel out misinformation.” On the challenge of persuading those “who are trying to beat back the disinformation monster with their fact club,” Stevens reiterates that “it doesn’t work the way people want it to work.” Continuing to make the point, she said, “We need to be able to situate those facts, those statistics, within the context of stories that actually help people understand things in human scale terms.”
Stevens explained why this is important. “When we’re constantly kind of trying to push back against the provocations of people who are spreading false information, that often puts us in the position of actually amplifying the very information we’re trying to help people understand the truth about.” Instead of reacting to disinformation designed to undermine civil society, Stevens encouraged participants to “share things in our own terms according to our own values.” Instead of constantly debating facts and trying to change people’s minds, the goal is to think about how, through conversations with the people around us, we can “uphold narratives that are going to help people find, claim, [and] use their power well.” By doing this, Stevens said, movement communications can do “double duty,” neutralizing disinformation while moving a progressive agenda forward and building the world we want to see.
How to Combat Disinformation
Given the trap of reinforcing false narratives by repeating them, is it ever appropriate to correct disinformation and its spread as misinformation?
The question, as it turns out, is not whether to correct it, but how this is done. Stevens identified “three A’s” for effective messaging: “Make sure your content is accurate, actionable, and aspirational. If you’re hitting those three things every single time you’re communicating, chances are you’re also not doing the things that are going to uphold mis- and disinformation.” She encouraged movement communicators and organizers to pause and reflect when someone repeats bad information. Paying attention to what’s missing from a narrative allows us to “re-present what we want to present in a way that replaces instead of repeats the misinformation.”
Wrapping up, Matthews asked each of the panelists for three things they would want to say to movement workers, academics, and others about combating disinformation. The panelists reiterated key points from the discussion, with Mason identifying three key interventions: building networks that plug people into ongoing efforts to combat disinformation through narrative analysis and solution building; holding Big Tech accountable through advocacy and legislation to advance a racially equitable digital society; and diversifying media, tech, and academic institutions that are working on these issues to center the analyses and needs of impacted communities.
The Q&A period, which was facilitated by NPQ’s editor in chief, Cyndi Suarez, revealed the audience’s overwhelming interest in learning how to have conversations about disinformation. The questions ranged from talking about disinformation in a personal way, to teaching college students how to avoid misinformation and disinformation in social research, to effective methods for communicating outside one’s own circle, to facilitating discussions in group spaces and understanding how infiltrators use technology to spread disinformation that targets individuals and groups online.
The discussion also reiterated the importance of understanding the power dynamics behind disinformation’s corrosive impact on civil society. Stevens responded to an audience question that asked the panelists to speak to the claim that “Disinformation is thriving across the political spectrum” by picking up Phelan’s point about disinformation’s uneven playing field. She clarified that, while there is a problem across the board, “we’re all impacted by it differently,” as groups with short-term interests in profit and political power deliberately mislead people “to basically deprive us of the ability to have good faith conversations across disagreement and difference.”
Despite the magnitude of the challenges of fighting disinformation, the conversation concluded on a more hopeful note. Mason urged people to focus on creating scalable solutions. Hayashi encouraged participants to check out the work of trans organizations and the “bold and beautiful and powerful ways that we are organizing, that we are telling our stories, that we are creating our vision.” Picking up on this note, Phelan reminded the audience that, at the end of another Pride month, “What we can learn from the queer liberation movement is celebration and love and joy in the face of extinction. And finding connection and community that allows for the creation in real time of something different than [what] currently exists.” Stevens echoed this sense of possibility as she discussed the importance of building relationships and shared trust: “There is so much power in us coming together and sharing these really accurate, aspirational, actionable stories of what we can do.”
Energized by the conversation, Matthews reminded everyone that reclaiming narrative power doesn’t happen by itself. To combat disinformation, “We have to fight to give people the information they need to be free.”