From Hate Speech to Pandemic of Disinformation A Decade of Information Evolution

Over the last decade, the issues related to the information sphere have undergone very significant and quite unprecedented changes. In 2015, during the so-called refugee crisis, the main problem was hate speech and the idea of fighting disinformation was only entering people’s consciousness. However, the war on hate was already ongoing in 2015 - we had a legal framework set out in the criminal law, and although the scale of hate speech on the Internet was immense, countermeasures had been available and used for years. There was: anti-discrimination education, training for judges and prosecutors, or the implementation of effective mechanisms for identifying perpetrators of hate crimes and the access of prosecutors to private indictments.

Less than 10 years ago, problems with the flow of information on the Internet began to be researched differently - as a problem of fake news. The issue was posed in a way that led to the categorization of different threats. The first threat identified was disinformation originating from foreign sources, also known recently as Foreign Information Manipulation Interference (FIMI). These attacks were initially contained within the realm of cybersecurity, special services, and international alliances such as NATO. FIMI was recognized as an act of hybrid threat and as NATO’s early response, in 2014, NATO Strategic Communications Centers were established.

Disinformation spread by foreign actors was later used by local ones such as politicians, leaders of anti-vaccine groups, and nationalist movements. Local actors have started using this disinformation, particularly narratives that target minorities and vulnerable groups, which led to the localization of disinformation and its presence in mainstream media. Local disinformation used for profit, political or social gains is extremely dangerous because it can be spread by people the public knows and trusts.

There is also a third category to be aware of, misinformation, which involves spreading of manipulative or false content by “ordinary” people who have come to believe the untruths. It is crucial to understand that various forms of disinformation and misinformation demand distinct approaches when it comes to tackling them. Nevertheless, all of them share a similar underlying problem - people are struggling to distinguish between facts and fiction. This is causing polarization on important matters and creates divisions within societies.

Fact-Checking and Beyond: Civil Society's Ongoing Fight

In recent years, disinformation research has played some role in the growth of a civil society. Several organizations have been established to conduct research and educational activities aimed at combating the spread of "fake news". Initially, these organizations focused on publishing articles to verify the accuracy of information. Educational initiatives were launched to promote media literacy, critical thinking, fact-checking, and countering false narratives. These efforts are crucial, but they only offer a partial solution.

In order to strengthen their position, fact-checking organizations have established networks, such as the International Fact-Checking Network or the European Digital Media Observatory, and research and publication standards, such as the European Fact-Checking Standards Network. These measures have significantly improved the credibility of these organizations among wider audiences. Nonetheless, fact-checking activities still only reach a small part of the public. Only a few years after the civil society response, the EU started to work with platforms on self-regulation, beginning with the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation in 2018. The Code’s signatories committed to partner with civil society organizations to support efforts aimed at improving critical thinking and digital media literacy, to support CSOs efforts to track and understand disinformation, including sharing privacy protected datasets and undertaking joint research. However, accessing data from platforms remains a problem even now.

The prevalence of disinformation, particularly coming from Russia, had already been evident before, but it was not until the COVID-19 pandemic that it was recognized as a major global issue and infodemic. Only then, CSOs’ monitoring, investigative and educational responses were combined with legislative measures and policy, state-based counter-infodemic and technological or economic responses. More funds were allocated to organize fact-checkers and other CSOs, but their effectiveness was limited by the mostly online meeting format used during the pandemic. That period and the subsequent outbreak of war in Ukraine caused a spike in disinformation in the European infosphere.

Despite that, strong legal action at the EU level was not introduced until 2022, with the publication of the Digital Services Act (DSA) or the sanctions imposed on Russia and the blocking of Russian media. CSOs that have been dealing with disinformation for years have emphasized the need to regulate online platforms as well as work with the public at the grassroots level to build positive narratives. The focus is not only on countering false narratives but also on building a positive image of groups and issues targeted by disinformation, such as the LGBT community, women’s rights or migrants. Fact-checking is undoubtedly important, but it alone cannot solve the problem of disinformation. While education can play some role, it has its limitations, and imposing top-down restrictions can be often perceived as censorship (like the removal of content by social media platforms). Therefore, the most effective way to combat disinformation is not only to identify and remove malicious content but also to work with people to mitigate the negative consequences of disinformation.

New World – Old Challenges

Disinformation has become increasingly prevalent and diverse, covering a range of socially significant topics such as the rights of LGBTQ+ community and women, migration, climate change, war, health, or security. As a result, most CSOs have to contend with disinformation in some capacity. This is particularly true for CSOs that work with refugees or other vulnerable groups. As part of the research work in 14 European countries, TechSoup together with its local partners from all over Europe, collected insights from activists and representatives of various CSOs regarding the challenges they face in their daily work. Various common problematic areas were identified in all four regions where the research was carried out (the Baltics, Black Sea, Western Balkans and Visegrad). Here are the issues that the CSOs face in terms of fighting disinformation:

1. Funding

Financial stability remains a significant challenge for most organizations in every region. Persistent issues relate to financing, notably the lack of funding for long-term activities, which often results in project-based approaches. Consequently, organizations grapple with financial instability and precarious employment arrangements for activists. Donor-provided funds are earmarked for specific purposes and cannot be utilized for internal organizational needs, such as developing administrative structures or acquiring new equipment. This funding framework constrains the exploration of more innovative activities, primarily restricting organizations to replicating past initiatives, albeit with limited effectiveness.

2. Human Resources

Organizations in all 4 regions face common challenges related to staff rotation and the lack of qualified personnel. Large staff turnover (due to low salary rates) often results in a loss of institutional knowledge. Most CSOs work with young, inexperienced people who require training in various skills such as project management, communication, and fundraising strategies. This chronic need for qualified human resources affects the quality of work done by CSOs in the four regions.

3. Effective Communication

Communication presents a great challenge in the researched regions. In the Baltics, the struggle lies in crafting compelling narratives and effectively communicating messages to engage the public and stakeholders. The Western Balkans, in particular, confront the arduous task of effective communication, given the government's control over public discourse. CSOs addressing sensitive topics are often labeled as "foreign agents" or "traitors." In the Visegrad region, notably Hungary, maintaining long-term communication efforts is problematic due to the pervasive influence of governmental channels and openly anti-CSOs campaigns.

4. Relationship Building

Activists face unique challenges when it comes to building and sustaining relationships with various actors and institutions. In the Baltic region, CSOs have identified a need for training in effective communication, and collaboration with the media and other organizations. Despite the potential benefits to all parties involved and their connections with communities, there is a lack of effective cooperation between CSOs. In the Western Balkans, civil society organizations face an uphill battle in building trust with their audiences, particularly around polarizing topics and disinformation campaigns. CSOs must establish their credibility and undertake positive campaigns to foster trust and citizens’ involvement while understanding their needs. The Visegrad region experiences competition among CSOs, hampering cooperation. Enhanced collaboration between CSOs could benefit all parties and improve relationships within the activist community. Similarly, in the Black Sea region, trust-building is a complex problem, especially over polarizing or disinformation-targeted topics. Fostering trust involves encouraging citizens to engage in addressing local issues and needs. Addressing these shared concerns is vital for bolstering the effectiveness and impact of civil society organizations in these regions.

5. Boosting Countering Disinformation

CSOs across the Baltics stressed the importance of continued professional development to combat disinformation. They highlighted the need to enhance their ability to monitor and track disinformation campaigns across various platforms and languages. Knowledge of fact-checking tools is also crucial, due to the ever-evolving field of data analysis. In the Western Balkans, CSOs lack the organizational and financial capacity to effectively respond to disinformation. They would benefit from stronger cooperation with CSOs that specialize in countering disinformation. The region also lacks a decision matrix to measure the depth and intensity of disinformation, which hinders their ability to respond effectively. The Visegrad region faces a need for better organizational and financial capacity to counter disinformation. An early warning system was identified as a valuable tool to prepare for crises resulting from disinformation, such as the migration crisis. In the Black Sea region, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova are under constant threat from disinformation campaigns. They affect the fieldwork of CSOs and undermine public trust. Vulnerable groups that CSOs work with, such as refugees and ethnic minorities, are often targeted, posing risks of social unrest and violence.

6. Digital Transformation

The CSOs in the Baltics are emphasizing the significance of building positive narratives and acquiring digital skillsets. The region faces challenges in accessing digital tools for data visualization, graphic design, and video editing. Moreover, they have difficulties in maintaining an effective online presence and in developing a comprehensive digital transformation strategy. In the Western Balkans, CSOs require knowledge about fact-checking tools and critical thinking skills that can be useful in their work, especially in relation to constant changes in the field of data analysis. In the Visegrad region, activists underlined that the digital transformation is crucial for CSOs to become more efficient, effective, and transparent. Resources and trainings are required for a successful digital transformation. Similarly, CSOs in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova mentioned the need to embrace digital transformation to improve their daily operations, data storage, and project management. However, they require additional skills and resources to implement this transformation completely.

Where do we stand?

As disinformation morphs and adapts to societal vulnerabilities, the battle against its corrosive effects necessitates a multifaceted approach. From combating hate speech during the refugee crisis in 2015 to the recognition of disinformation as a global issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, the journey has been both enlightening and arduous. Civil society, represented by numerous organizations, has valiantly ventured into the realms of fact-checking, education, and legislative advocacy.

The challenges faced by NGOs, meticulously documented across regions like the Baltics, Black Sea, Western Balkans, and Visegrad, unveil a tapestry of struggles. Financial instability, a dearth of qualified personnel, communication quandaries, and the imperative need for digital transformation are the shared burdens that hinder the efficacy of civil society's fight against disinformation. The rallying cry calls for a united front against these challenges.

Amidst the complex web of challenges posed by disinformation, we possess a formidable toolkit—comprising strategic training, targeted education, dynamic partnerships, and a visionary shift in the "business model" of CSOs. Recognizing these hurdles as catalysts for innovation, we must invest in comprehensive training, empowering CSOs with the skills to navigate the disinformation landscape. Beyond targeted interventions, a collective dialogue within the third sector becomes imperative, unifying strengths to confront the dynamic challenges of our era. We need to act to shield civil society and fortify its role as a bastion of truth and resilience.

Background illustration by: Summit Art Creations

Check out the Countering Disinformation tools we gathered in our Digital Activism Toolkit!