CRDF Global Spotlight Series

IVLP Perspectives Point to a Multi-Dimensional Response to Combat Disinformation

Dr. Rumena Filipova is Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Institute for Global Analytics (Bulgaria), which seeks to foster closer bonds between academia, policy-making, and civil society on the basis of innovative ideas, connecting the global with the local. In 2021, she was selected by the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on media responsibility in an age of disinformation. The IVLP is a professional exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State that fosters mutual understanding between current and emerging foreign leaders and their American counterparts.

Media is a central and unavoidable aspect of everyday life. It reports, investigates, and demands accountability from politicians, while further framing perceptions and identities. Yet, afflicted by a variety of challenges, media platforms have served to subvert the transparency and clarity of the transmission of information, distorting our views of the world. Concerns about opaque media ownership structures; the dissemination of domestically-generated and foreign authoritarian state-sponsored disinformation; targeted political advertising and breaches of data privacy on social media; legal and physical assaults on journalists; and government crackdowns on free speech inform a long list of problems that need to be urgently tackled by civil society, policy-makers and media professionals.

The IVLP Project “Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists – Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation II”, which took place between 15 November and 10 December 2021, provided such a comprehensive perspective on media, demonstrating that the way forward for dealing with the predicaments besetting journalism should be multi-dimensional. First, we need to understand the psychology behind susceptibility to disinformation, and thereafter design effective techniques for attracting audiences to quality journalism. In turn, the fundamentals of (social) media literacy should be taught in school. There also needs to be a firm grasp of the craft of journalism. For instance, we need to be simultaneously attuned to the significance of hardships and personal risks involved in investigative reporting. For its part, local journalism’s advantage to the population has to be underscored, all the while attempting to find solutions for its decline.

Based on this plethora of perspectives, a number of critical takeaways have stood out in the IVLP hosts’, speakers’ and fellows’ quest to build media resilience:

  • Our discussions crucially underlined the importance of “media entrepreneurship.” This concept is a reminder that quality journalism requires a continuous search for cutting-edge, newsworthy information. But media entrepreneurship also refers to seeking innovative models – such as nonprofit funding, that can assist in breaking away from a dualistic dependence on either state support and government subsidies or corporate financing.
  • The widespread public distrust in the media, observable across many countries, speaks to the growing distance between news outlets and their audience, who now turn to social media. Hence, a most immediate remedy to close this gulf would consist in participatory journalism: active citizen re-engagement with the media through, among others, reporting of locally-relevant concerns or the formation of civil societal councils exercising scrutiny over public news outlets.
  • Critical times in politics, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, call for reevaluating the concept of “neutrality,” which is an integral part of the journalistic and academic practice. It is particularly necessary to question the boundaries of such neutrality so that “silence does not become complicity.” That is, media professionals and commentators may be allowed to take a stand in cases when viewpoints do not have equal validity. So, weighing in on sounder argumentation could be required with respect to events and developments that entail significant social and political ramifications.

Overall, these three crucial insights from the IVLP program discussions can be utilized for starting to carve out a global and coordinated response to media problems. Admittedly, many of those problems are characterized by national specificities and hold concrete contextual relevance. For instance, the case of Bulgaria demonstrates that extensive vaccine hesitancy (concretely manifested in the country’s lowest level of vaccination within the European Union) has been fed by disinformation and conspiracy theories circulated by domestic actors and further reinforced by foreign authoritarian state-sponsored influence operations. Yet, these are also phenomena that are present to varying degrees across countries and represent experiences that media professionals on a worldwide scale can relate to. A shared challenge is emerging, in particular, with regard to the need to find effective solutions to the growing interconnection and accumulation of internal and external sources of disinformation and attacks on media freedom. Hence, a global response is possible and necessary and would be informed by contextual sensitivity combined with mutual learning and networked collaboration. In this way only can we move from an internationalized infodemic to a global media cure.

Dr. Rumena Filipova is Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Institute for Global Analytics (Bulgaria), which seeks to foster closer bonds between academia, policy-making, and civil society on the basis of innovative ideas, connecting the global with the local. She is the author of the forthcoming book Constructing the Limits of Europe. Identity and Foreign Policy in Poland, Bulgaria, and Russia since 1989 (ibidem-Verlag/Columbia University Press).

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