Nine years ago, a New York Times op-ed by Vladimir Putin compelled me to ask a two-part question in the Journal of Professional Communication – one worth asking again today: Are democratic ideals closer in an age where global communication power is within every citizen’s reach? Or do the strategies and tools of modern communication help autocrats as well as democrats?
In the 2020s, the front lines of the battle have moved decisively from carefully curated editorial pages to the social web’s vast ecosystem of misinformation and disinformation. After some ten years of toxicity, democratic ideals seem further from our grasp.
Navigating the news can be incredibly hard, whether it’s determining whether videos or images of warfare are authentic depictions of Ukraine today, or understanding who was really behind the recent occupation of Ottawa. Was it angry truckers blocking traffic because they opposed vaccination mandates? Frustrated ordinary people partying in front of Canada’s parliament? Violent far-right extremists with sophisticated police and military training? Yes, yes and yes. Like the Indian parable about the blind men and an elephant, limiting our perspectives makes it easier to manipulate the images that shape our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour.
Appropriating values, normalizing narratives
Information warfare also means the appropriation of values. In his 2013 op-ed, Putin claimed to value “peaceful dialogue” over the “language of force” (without a trace of irony). Today, it’s alarming to hear many people blame NATO for the horrors Russia is unleashing in Ukraine, as though sovereign countries should be actively excluded from common defence to mollify a tyrant.
In Canada recently, we have seen the appropriation and distortion of ideals and symbols, from the national flag to the word “freedom.” Does freedom of protest imply freedom to blockade a city or a bridge between nations? Does freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated against a deadly disease imply the right to risk endangering the health of others? Of course not, but when people lack information, feel economically threatened, and mistrust journalism and expertise, these counter-arguments will never be heard.
An online hate researcher, Dan Panneton, writes persuasively about how disinformation and conspiratorial narratives are normalized: first, real, imagined and exaggerated concerns are bound together by a common sense of alienation and grievance; second, mainstream and fringe groups meld, merge and reinforce each other; and third, extreme symbols and rhetoric become adjacent to legitimate issues.
The result? Misinformation and disinformation do more than just divide our societies and our planet; they act like a centrifugal force – actively pulling us apart, and normalizing the extremes.
Can new information alliances win the war?
The situation is deeply worrisome, but not hopeless. There’s both a growing understanding of the problem and tentative steps toward solutions from news media outlets, social media platforms and media literacy organizations.
Sylvia Stead, the Globe and Mail’s public editor, argues that news organizations must strike a careful balance by ensuring their reporting “tries to understand anger and mistrust but doesn’t amplify disinformation.” They must also call out disinformation and hold those who spread it accountable, she says.
While staying on top of misinformation in social media seems like a near-impossible task, the social platforms increasingly accept their responsibility to do so, and score some victories from time to time. Twitter’s warning labels are a good example, and this week’s decision by Facebook1, TikTok and Microsoft to block access to Russia Today and Sputnik, two insidious Kremlin-backed news outlets, was a landmark moment in the fight against disinformation. Yes, such actions involve judgment calls, which can be a slippery slope, but making them is necessary to avoid the continued abuse of these global platforms.
It is also encouraging to see emerging business models that verify the credibility of media sources for educational institutions, health care systems, marketers and others who rely on the media to provide accurate information for educators, students, patients and customers. Artificial intelligence tracks the landscape and signals emerging risks, and then professional journalists apply human judgment to the task of “pre-bunking” and de-bunking misinformation.
The role of leaders
The biggest momentum shift in the battle against misinformation and extremism, however, must begin not with those who report or share the news, but with those who make it: the leaders of government, business and civil society.
Political leaders face a dilemma: is leadership about firing up polarized partisans, or acknowledging anger while trying to calm things down? In Canada recently, the one leader who attempted the latter strategy – Conservative leader Erin O’Toole — quickly found himself out of a job. Both his interim successor and the early front-runner for the permanent job stoked the protestors’ anger, while the Liberal prime minister goaded the convoy, lumping all participants into a movement that stood for “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, homophobia and trans phobia.” Days later, he lambasted his opponents for standing with “people who wave swastikas.” In return, the other parties accused him of fomenting more division.
In firing up their bases with these tactics, they leave scorched earth behind. Leaders can do better, as we see from Joe Biden’s success in using U.S. intelligence to highlight the truth of Russia’s actions, and thoughtful public diplomacy to rally the democratic world to isolate Russia from global trade.
In the age of information warfare, leadership requires a challenging, courageous combination of empathy, listening, patience, moral clarity and firmness. No public policy enjoys unanimous support, but disagreement itself is not divisive; it only becomes divisive through communication. We need leaders who are prepared to stand up to their own partisans when the public interest demands it. Part of the solution is surely electoral reform that changes their incentives, whether through preferential ballots or systems that reward collaboration.
It’s not surprising to see a growing public expectation that business leaders will step into the breach — showing leadership on public issues, and aligning their business and investment decisions with their values.
This means building empathy as both a personal and organizational skill. It means genuinely engaging both internal and external stakeholders in dialogue – not just to communicate decisions, but also to inform them before they are made. And it means taking responsibility for identifying false narratives quickly, and correcting them firmly.
At a time when centrifugal forces seem to be pulling society toward its extremes, perhaps the role of leaders is to emulate another type of physics: centripetal force, which causes a change in the direction of velocity toward the centre. It’s a type of leadership that calms things down, listens before acting, courageously states things as they are, and inspires us to work and walk together on a better path.
1 Argyle is an advisor to Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent organization.
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