Social cohesion is fundamental to the functioning of a healthy society. It refers to the relationships of trust and connectedness that enable a sense of a common good across different communities, underpin the social contract between citizens and government, and allow societies to deal with difference and conflict in non-violent and non-coercive ways. Today, social cohesion faces a set of pernicious challenges and threats through the dynamics of digital misinformation.
While digital information technologies have the potential to benefit individuals and societies in many useful and important ways, their propensity to amplify and accelerate misinformation leads to vulnerabilities on a global scale.
This scale is possible because digital technologies have created conditions in which information:
- spreads further, faster across vast networks of interconnected channels and platforms
- can be micro-targeted to increasingly specific groups and profiles
- can be segmented so effectively that different realities can be presented to different people
These online conditions have real-world impacts and play an important role in the erosion of social cohesion. By exploiting tensions and fears and creating confusion around issues of deep importance for wellbeing and stability, digital misinformation fuels polarization, and makes it difficult to recognize which sources of information should be trusted.
Likewise, the more difficult it becomes for people to discern fact from fiction, the more easily doubt is sown – in science, government, social institutions, and in one another. In turn, this fundamental erosion of trust makes us more susceptible to misinformation itself, affecting not only the choices we make as private citizens, but also the decisions and directions formulated and advanced by governments, multilateral organizations, and other influential institutions.
This dangerous feedback loop between digital misinformation and social cohesion exacerbates our vulnerabilities to many threats, and its dynamics have been observed across a range of issues, including electoral integrity, climate change, public health, human rights, and gender- and race-based discrimination.
Digital misinformation dynamics have also played an important role in violent conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Syria; in social tensions in Sri Lanka, DRC, Nigeria, and the United States, among many others; and is often instrumental in the radicalization practices of violent extremist groups around the world.
The challenges of digital misinformation implicate a complex system that spans social, legal, financial, political and technological actors and concerns (and others). As the reverberations of these dynamics are experienced across sectors and societies, stakeholders from across the system have mobilized. In looking across the wide range of initiatives being carried out we notice the following approaches or orientations to defining problems and solutions:
– Information focus: Initiatives within this orientation focus on the nature and status of misinformation itself as the problem to be addressed, typically through identifying and/or correcting misinformation across the spectrum of digital information platforms and outlets. Solutions involve verification and fact-checking approaches, tools, and knowledge products.
– Technology focus: Initiatives within this orientation focus on the technological dimensions of digital misinformation (such as platforms, algorithms, AI, etc.) as both drivers and solutions to the problem of digital misinformation. They tend to focus on adaptations and advances in technologies, as well as regulatory frameworks that pertain to them.
– Skills focus: Initiatives within this orientation focus on building awareness and skills of citizens, civil society, and community journalists for navigating the digital information space in safe and ethical ways (as consumers, producers, and vectors). Solutions include educational materials, trainings and workshops, information, and platforms, often with a focus on media literacy.
– Issue focus: Initiatives within this orientation focus on the impacts of misinformation but are often conceived and organized to “combat” misinformation around particular thematic concerns, topics, or specific initiatives themselves. As a result, we see initiatives designed to address misinformation about climate change, or about the Covid-19 virus, or about a specific election.
All of these approaches are important and needed. But on their own, they leave some important gaps when it comes to social cohesion:
– First, focusing on the content and channels of digital misinformation can cause us to overlook the role of diminished social cohesion as a key driver. Similarly, a focus on content and channels also directs attention to building skills for media and digital literacy, but can leave other skills, such as conflict resolution, non-violent communication, civic education, and other areas important for social cohesion, to the side.
– Second, organizing around thematic concerns creates a system of fragmented responses and disconnected approaches. The result is a compounding set of vocabularies and varying degrees of understanding of the central dynamics at hand. Focusing on the impact of misinformation on our own areas of concerns prevents us from gaining a view of the common risks that underlie all digital misinformation dynamics, and from working together to address them. It also trains attention on addressing present problems and immediate threats, rather than on understanding the cumulative (and long-term) effects of digital misinformation dynamics.
– Thirdly, at present, there is no actor or body working to facilitate cross-sector collaboration to support diverse sectors and stakeholders grappling with the dynamics discussed here. This leaves untapped the potential contributions of cross-sector learning and insights for new and more systemic and synergistic ways of thinking and acting.
Barriers and Opportunities
Given these gaps, and despite the wide array of efforts by different actors, the conditions fueling the feedback loop between digital misinformation and the erosion of social cohesion remain active. Diverse stakeholder groups find this state of affairs unacceptable, unstable, or unsustainable, and there has been widespread acknowledgement that transformational change is needed at the systemic level to shift the current trajectory.
But, there are many barriers. In particular, the diversity of powerful and competing interests involved, the key tensions around fundamental rights, responsibilities and roles implicated, and a climate of increasing polarisation, are inhibiting the kinds of dialogue, partnerships, and collaboration required.
These circumstances are hindering key stakeholders from creating a shared view of what is happening, or what could or should happen, for the system to move forward.
This presents us with an opportunity to create a response that:
1. Focuses collective attention around the question of social cohesion in order to:
- attend explicitly to the feedback loop between digital misinformation and social cohesion as a core concern (rather than positioning it as a potential outcome from focusing on other concerns),
- broaden our thinking about the most crucial problems and solutions beyond the digital space,
- convene, enroll, and empower a much wider network of stakeholders working with information ecosystems, peacebuilding, and affected domains.
2. Creates the grounds for transformative systems change by:
- reimagining who we think of as key stakeholders and bringing them together to collaborate,
- extending our thinking to the future,
- naming systemic barriers and divergent interests and addressing them creatively,
- creating synergy among different strategies across issues and sectors,
- incubating and accompanying change initiatives.