Of all the news stories that have come out of the horrifying events in the Ukraine I’ve found the reports of citizens being targeted by trolls the most abhorrent.
To be living through an invasion while being told that the war is a hoax or that your town is (inaccurately) about to be bombed is to deny the truth of what people are facing.
Fake news is defined as false or misleading information presented as news, although this term has now evolved into misinformation (when false information is shared which is not intended to cause harm) and disinformation (when deliberately deceptive information is shared).
A recent report from the communications regulator Ofcom found that 63 per cent of UK adults were concerned about which online information is real or fake.
But why should this matter to charities?
Many charities operate in fields which are affected by unreliable information, from humanitarian organisations to those in health that are battling disinformation about Covid vaccines and other issues.
More broadly, charities need to be trusted or people won’t donate or use their services.
Sandrine Tiller, strategic adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières, has seen the impact of this first hand, and how sophisticated and targeted the process of mis- and disinformation has become.
“We have had the veracity of our reports put in doubt by disinformation; we have been amplified by bot armies when what we have said has suited one side of the conflict, and conversely, we have been attacked online when what we say has not suited others,” she says.
This issue doesn’t just affect global NGOs.
It can affect small, local charities trying to help people in their communities. Glen Tarman, head of policy at the fact checking charity Full Fact, advises organisations to understand how bad information could impact the people they support.
For example, “groups looking to address hate, abuse, misogyny and violence against women are factoring in the spread of false information that drives and enables those harms”, he says.
It’s a big responsibility to factor into your work, let alone your overheads if you’re a small charity. There are two things you can do about this.
Firstly, check that the information you and your colleagues are sharing on digital channels is accurate.
I would add this into your content planning for your organisational channels as well as into your social media policy for staff, volunteers and trustees.
Secondly, partner with and learn from other charities who are working on this challenge.
Nick Poole, CEO of the library and information association CILIP, and his team have established the Media and Information Literacy Alliance, a coalition of charities, third sector organisations, libraries, regulators and media partners that share a common goal of keeping people safe online.
They are working with schools to help teachers tackle disinformation in the context of the curriculum and NHS Health Education England to improve “digital health literacy” for children and young people, including apps to help them identify between good and bad health information.
Poole believes that such work is a fundamental part of our mission as a sector.
“We need to ensure that we are equipping children and young people today with the skills and resilience they will need to navigate a world of always-on, 24-hour news and information,” he says.
Yet the ways in which bad actors are spreading disinformation will only become more complex as emerging technology such as deepfakes develop further.
Will this be something we all need to consider in our charity risk registers in future years, if not sooner?
As a minimum, if your charity could be affected by misinformation and disinformation you should be planning for this in your digital crisis comms.
The work we all do in social good needs to include making online spaces and information safe and trustworthy.
In an age of fake news the truth matters more than ever, and part of our role as a sector is giving people the knowledge and skills that empower them with choice.