Disinformation is not just a buzz word, policy discussion, or hearing on the Hill. Its virulence transforms from social media to inciting hate and violence in local communities – it can literally kill you.
Policy makers have access to the latest threat assessment technologies that provide rich analytics on disinformation. Media organizations and tech platforms have linked up to set up early warning systems to quell disinformation around elections and before violence strikes. Donors have increased awareness on detecting disinformation through grants to civil society and journalists that improve media literacy.
The question is – how do we stop it once it has gone viral? Whom do you trust? What makes us listen?
One answer came from an intrepid superintendent of police, Rema Rajeshwari in Telangana State, India. She inspired us at #StratComDC by sharing a simple truth – if you want to engage people in social change, choose local media channels and messengers that entertain.
What happened? In 2017, the BBC covered a spate of stomach-churning mob attacks in the Telangana district. Enraged by supposed child-kidnapping videos circulated via the social media platform WhatsApp, villagers attacked strangers and further shared these revenge assaults on video – thus, expanding and escalating violence across hundreds of adjacent towns. The original video was an edited clip of a public awareness campaign from Pakistan to reduce child kidnapping. Someone had doctored the video for cruel fun. A nation was in shock over dozens of homicides over a prank.
If pranks can kill, gauging the impact of coordinated campaigns takes little imagination. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on WhatsApp found content manipulation in political campaigns in Brazil and India pointed to over 65 percent of content being manipulated through cheap-fake and deep-fake methods. In Telangana, there were 40 murders within a few months.
The impact went well beyond that: a nation of a billion was terrorized. What was further striking about this story was that Internet and smartphone access in these villages was close to 90 percent, while reading literacy was half that. The mayhem was visual.
The end to the mayhem was made possible through efforts of intrepid local law enforcement officers who, frustrated by failed attempts at official notices, created a punchy jingle in the form of a folk song and trained 400 town criers across as many villages to flip the narrative. Ms. Rajeshwari shared with a captive group, “No one was interested in my content… we had to do something that appealed to them.”
What appealed was entertainment. The lesson from the India example is that entertainment works. It is what law enforcement credits to addressing the situation in Telangana. Entertainers seek a large audience with shared affinity. Beygairat Brigade, produces political satire videos whose viewership runs into the millions. This matters in both societies where over half the populations were born after 1991; over half a billion people in these countries don’t remember life before the Internet.
Entertainment formats for changing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are not new but they can be better integrated in importing messages that can quell disinformation, promote media literacy, and prevent violence. Education entertainment has been a successful means for positive change in other sectors of development – from global health and conflict resolution to environmental conservation and sanitation. Below are a few reasons why it works well and can be integrated into disinformation programming:
- It engages viewers and listeners with formats they know and trust.
- It retains audience attention though popular characters, plots, and suspenseful drama.
- Humans are wired to remember songs and pictures more than lectures and recriminations.
- It resonates with local customs and traditions.
- It plays to our emotions – audiences stay engaged and come back for more.
Since 2018, Dexis has been testing new ways to combat disinformation by working with local partners in East Africa and Eastern Europe that know which traditional communications channels work best with which audience. When raising awareness about the consequences of disinformation on stability, think about the influencers in the communities, the formats people trust, the messages that resonate. As described in the India example, when heroes like police commissioners can create folk songs that capture audiences to dispel viral rumors, they not only bring together the community, they save lives.
Tamara Babiuk is Senior Director for the Center for Global Security and Stabilization at Dexis, driving thought leadership and project design that address some of the world’s most pressing security and stabilization issues.