Mis and disinformation pose an existential threat to democracy. Steven Youngblood shows how the principles of peace journalism can combat its corrosive effects
The threats of misinformation and disinformation, underscored during recent elections in America, Brazil, South Korea, Kenya, and elsewhere, have been extensively researched and analysed.
In the US, misinformation is eroding public confidence in democracy. A 2022 NPR survey found that 64% of Americans believe US democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing. Among respondents, 70% said that democracy was more at risk of failure now than it was in 2021.
A 2022 survey found that 64% of Americans believe US democracy is in crisis
In an article for the Brookings Institution, Gabriel Sanchez observes, 'One of the drivers of decreased confidence in the political system has been the explosion of misinformation deliberately aimed at disrupting the democratic process. This confuses and overwhelms voters. Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Russia’s cyber efforts and online actors were able to influence public perceptions and sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail-in voting, highlighting alleged irregularities, and accusing the Democratic Party of engaging in voter fraud. The "big lie"…has lasting implications on voters’ trust in election outcomes.'
This is also true in Europe. Writing for the University of Birmingham’s blog, Merten Riglitz says, 'Major democratic institutions, such as the UK’s House of Commons and the European Commission, have correctly identified fake news as a threat to their values and processes, but the real danger lurks in the corrosive effect that these online lies have on citizens’ trust in their democracy. Reputable polling evidence shows that fake news leads to a loss of trust of citizens in each other – a major cause of destabilising democratic processes and undermining the benefits that morally justify democratic institutions.'
The impact of misinformation is especially pronounced in the developing world. On the Council on Foreign Relations blog, Conor Sanchez writes, 'As the technology to deceive improves, verifying authentic content online will only become more difficult, raising its potential to sow social discord and lower people’s trust in their institutions. These trends are worrisome enough for advanced economies, but they portend an immediate crisis in emerging and developing economies, where institutions are more fragile and access to unlimited data is still prohibitively expensive.'
From a media standpoint, employing principles of peace journalism effectively combats the corrosive effects of mis and disinformation on democracy.
There are several valid definitions of peace journalism (PJ). Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, in their groundbreaking 2005 book Peace Journalism, define it as, 'when editors and reporters make choices – of what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict'. PJ 'builds an awareness of nonviolence and creativity into the practical job of everyday editing and reporting.'
Employing principles of peace journalism effectively combats the corrosive effects of mis and disinformation on democracy
The Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville, Missouri, adapts and expands on the Lynch/McGoldrick definition. The Center says that PJ is a practice in which 'editors and reporters make choices that improve the prospects for peace. These choices, including how to frame stories and carefully choosing which words are used, create an atmosphere conducive to peace and supportive of peace initiatives and peacemakers, without compromising the basic principles of good journalism.'
Peace journalism principles can apply to combat political propaganda, social media disinformation, and hyper-partisan political reporting that undermine democracy. This is achievable through:
To elaborate on a few of these, let’s start with PJ and electoral/political reporting. Seminars for journalists in Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya, and elsewhere from 2007 onwards discussed journalists' positive role in combatting disinformation and propaganda during political campaigns and elections. Hundreds of journalists have implemented these guidelines.
The seminars advised journalists to avoid airing comments and reports that encourage tribalism and divisions in a society. Instead, it recommended journalists insist that candidates address issues that bring communities together. Journalists also gained advice about editing out candidates' inflammatory, divisive, or violent statements. Alternatively, seminars suggested that journalists could broadcast inflammatory comments, but then offer analysis and criticism of the statements. Reporters were also advised to call out political propaganda, to centre their reporting around everyday people and their concerns, and to hold candidates accountable for their statements and promises.
Peace journalism can also be a tool to bridge polarised, partisan divides. Thus, it reduces the impact of mis and disinformation that demonises and isolates with 'us versus them' narratives.
Peace journalism can bridge partisan divides, reducing the impact of mis and disinformation that cultivates 'us versus them' narratives
Many peace journalism projects have done just this. In Turkey, a PJ project strengthened connections between Turks and Syrian refugees. In South Sudan, such a project helped ease ethnic tensions between Dinka and Nuer groups, and in Georgia between Georgians and Abkhazians. The largest example was a three-year project that concluded in 2022. Journalists for Change brought together Pakistani and Indian journalists to jointly report on issues of common interest for both countries, and to offer solutions, rather than simply describing problems.
Mis and disinformation, and the threat they pose to democracy, aren’t going away. Thus, it’s vital that societies take a multi-pronged approach to combating mal-information. This includes improved media (peace journalism) as well as extensive media literacy education.