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How State and Local Governments Can Combat Disinformation

To fight false narratives and foster trust in reliable information, governments can invest in local news, support empathy-building initiatives, and ensure election processes are traceable, a new report says.

Rashad Robinson
Rashad Robinson, co-chair of the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder, spoke during a panel on the commission’s findings.
The Aspen Institute took on the sweeping issue of mis- and disinformation with the release of an 80-page report yesterday that outlines key goals and steps for government, private firms and civic society to take to reduce the harm and spread of false claims and garner trust in reliable information sources.

The spread of deliberate or accidental falsehoods undermines society’s ability to effectively tackle problems like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the report said. After all, it’s hard to frame goals or collaborate on solutions without first agreeing over what the facts of the problem are.

“Information disorder is a crisis that exacerbates all other crises, because it prevents us, in so many ways, from being able to discuss important issues with facts,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, during a panel discussion of the report yesterday. “It keeps us from being able to come together to solve big issues.”

Robinson, former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) director Chris Krebs and journalist Katie Couric co-chaired the institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which spent six months consulting with academics, community leaders, legislators, researchers, technology industry representatives and other experts to take a society-wide look at false information.

That effort produced a set of 15 recommendations of short- and long-term actions for government, private firms, civic rights organizations and others. These initiatives are intended to bring greater transparency into social media platforms’ activities; better ensure the public has access to and faith in providers of accurate information, such as libraries and local newspapers; and reduce some of the most serious damages of misinformation, such as that impacting marginalized communities, public health and elections.

Propping Up Local News

Research finds that residents who have access to local news publications are more likely to engage with elections, Couric said. Local journalists also are particularly strong forces for keeping local and state officials accountable, because these reporters tend to be tied into the community they’re covering, the report said.

But when these local papers shutter, readers often turn to less trustworthy sources to get their information.

Shoring up these smaller papers takes investment, however, and the report suggested various mechanisms to help fund them. Commissioners backed the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide consumers with tax credits for their local news subscriptions, and suggested folding in a provision ensuring states could leverage digital advertising taxes.

Commissioners highlighted Maryland’s 2021-enacted tax on digital advertising and suggested other states follow suit and direct a portion of the tax revenue to local news outlets. Authors also backed the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide consumers with tax credits for their local news subscriptions and small businesses with credits for ads purchased in local papers.

Traditional media has had its own failings, too, however. Many mainstream newsrooms have traditionally focused on the concerns and perspectives of white communities to the exclusion of other voices. Initiatives to support new organizations can build greater trust by addressing this gap, and the report recommended states and municipalities direct advertising dollars particularly to media owned by people of color and serving marginalized communities. Tax incentives, too, could be focused on bolstering locally owned outlets, especially ones led by people of color or with diverse newsrooms.

Commissioners also proposed the federal government establish a nonprofit, independently managed “public restoration fund” that would expand access to reliable information by investing in libraries, school programs and other local institutions in underserved areas. The fund would also invest in research on combatting systemic misinformation.

Trusted Elections

Most voting locations use voting machines that leave paper trails, making it easy to confirm all went well — and federal grants should be invested in helping the remaining few follow suit, the Commission urged. Election officials must prevent any interference from marring elections as well as prevent any doubt from marring public faith in the results.

This work requires adopting systems that enable election officials to provide evidence that voters were accurately registered and ballots carefully handled. Governments should invest in education campaigns to ensure members of the public understand how elections work and the precautions taken, the report said.

Federal grants will help in the short term, but election officials also need recurring funding to let them make long-term commitments like signing contracts and hiring more employees, the report stated. Dollars aren’t the only useful support either, and authors urged the federal government to partner with state and local election officials, nonprofits and academics on detecting and countering false claims as they start to crop up, as well as helping push out trustworthy information from state and local officials.

Bridging Empathy, Communication Divides

Empathy and education can also be powerful tools, because disinformation campaigns often try to exacerbate and stir up tensions between population groups, to foment greater division and mistrust.

“As a society, we can’t move forward as a multi-cultural and multi-racial democracy if we can’t reconcile how long-standing inaccurate or misleading narratives continue to divide us and cause rifts that bad actors, both foreign and domestic, use to advance their objectives,” the report states.

Efforts to build empathy and understanding across groups can help establish common facts and reduce mistrust, and commissioners pointed to the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) framework — an effort focused on bringing attention to and addressing historic and current impacts of racism — as an example of a community-based initiative that strives to elevate truths and build relationships. The report encouraged companies and government to support this and similar initiatives.

Social Media

Social media done right can also help promote empathy, the report states.

Major platforms like Facebook have continually come under fire for their roles in amplifying violent conspiracy theories, but social networks have also given regular individuals valuable avenues to connect and discuss. The report encourages local governments to promote tools that help provide the benefits of greater connection among residents, while avoiding the more dangerous practices.

Some such efforts are already underway, including Vermont’s Front Porch Forum, which connects local nonprofits, residents, public officials and small businesses and aims to promote community engagement. Similarly, nonprofit-run aims to foster productive debate by relying on an algorithm designed around connecting users who hold different opinions, rather one aimed at getting the most possible user engagement or advertising spend, the report said.

The report detailed key goals, but work remains to be done to figure out how to enact all of them and take them further. The Aspen Institute is offering a prize to projects that advance these goals, Aspen Institute Aspen Digital Executive Director Vivian Schiller announced during yesterday’s panel.

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.

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