Official Desk
Role of civil society in preventing rumors
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Role of civil society in preventing rumors


Official Desk

There have been many studies about journalists’ role in the global war against misinformation. There have been many initiatives too to train journalists. However, there have been few such discussions or initiatives about the role of civil society (being another influential part of society). Dr. Joan Donovan and her research team tried finding out the answers regarding the possible role of civil society in preventing rumors from spreading.

They presented a report in October 2020, on “How civil society can combat misinformation and hate speech without making it worse”.

Dr. Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of Harvard Kennedy School, published this paper as part of the 2020 Technology and Social Change (TaSC) research project. Her research team followed “Media manipulation life cycle” methodology collecting evidence on the evolution of fake news and its effects.

The entire process of preventing misinformation and hate speech is quite complex and time-consuming. However, to make the complicated process a little simpler, Dr. Joan Donovan drew up six suggestions for the civil society. They are as follows:

Connected communities

Social media users are not just ‘mere’ users, rather they are deeply rooted to the virtual world as parts of the society. Thus, coming across false news in a group or forums on social media, should not result in panic. One should, rather, share authentic information or evidence and discuss among themselves. The person spreading false news or information, should not be mocked either. But if that person continues to spread false information despite warnings, the solution is to let the group admin know and remove the post from the platform. If needed, the person should be banned from the forum.

The Truth Sandwich

Often disinformation is delivered through memes, in the form of short, memorable, and pithy slogans. An untrue statement, is difficult to disrupt. Refuting a statement like this requires breaking up the psychological impulse to remember something so sticky and then replacing it with what is true. A rebuttal should take the form of a truth sandwich, which refutes the false claims and provides further evidence to the contrary.


In some cases, disinformation is predictable. Prebunking is an offensive strategy that refers to anticipating what disinformation is likely to be repeated by politicians, pundits, and provocateurs during key events and having already prepared a response based on past fact-checks. Dr. Donovan suggests a 5-step procedure. This includes looking at fact checking websites and databases to get a sense of the trends in misinformation, mapping out which misinformation trends are popular and finding additional material with the facts about the misinformation likely to be repeated and create some content that dispels these themes. A quick response of facts alongside the misinformation can go a long way.

Distributed debunking

Engaging with disinformation often makes it gain more traction within search and trending algorithms, because these technologies cannot tell the difference between truth and lies. But sometimes it is imperative to respond and it is not enough to simply respond to the misinformation. A collaborative and concerted initiative has to be undertaken by the civil society in such situations.

Localise the context

The local context is always more effective. When debunking information, bear the local community in mind, and if possible, share local knowledge which can be much more effective and long-lasting. Contextualised explanation with reliable evidence helps attain a more positive impact.

Humor over rumor

The psychology of misinformation is complex, but tends to begin by triggering emotional reactions and confirmation bias. Misinformation thrives in environments that are charged up by outrage, fear, and anger. People are inclined to share information if they feel that it is somehow being suppressed or is not going to be covered by the media. Humor over rumor is a community strategy employed by Taiwan to respond to misinformation quickly and memorably especially during the Covid pandemic. The report discusses a few such examples.


Rather than waiting for tech companies to mitigate the damage caused by their products, civil society must try new strategies for fighting media manipulation and disinformation.

The social media and tech companies have taken various steps to prevent disinformation and rumors. But the steps are quite inadequate in preventing the spread of disinformation and rumors. Dr Donovan and her team ends with, “Our current information ecosystem was not designed to serve the interests of the broader public, nor was it designed to protect communities caught in the crosshairs of a disinformation campaign.”