The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. This article was also published on Apolitical.
The problem: Pervasive mis- and disinformation has eroded public trust and made it more complicated for public servants to deliver the quality policies and services that citizens expect.
Why it matters: Fact-driven policies and public trust in information integrity are prerequisites for effective governance and cohesive societies in our democracies.
The solution: There is no silver bullet. Nonetheless, by working with media, civil society and other stakeholders, public servants and policymakers have a key role to play in developing a comprehensive set of responses that strengthen information integrity whilst upholding freedom of speech.
Mis- and disinformation are not new, nor is the threat that false and misleading information can pose to governments and societies.
The mission to defend and strengthen information spaces has become particularly complex in the digital age, where anyone can be a source of information (or mis- and disinformation), content can be shared instantly to a global audience, and AI tools make the creation and dissemination of misleading content easier than ever. Malign actors (foreign and domestic) use this new context to undermine the integrity of information ecosystems at the core of the functioning of democracies.
Today, democracies are building their capacities to counteract the challenges posed by false and misleading content as part of a broader effort to promote the free and open flow of trustworthy information.
How can governments contribute to combating mis- and disinformation, which today threatens the democratic system by polarising views and preventing policy debates?
In a democracy, this is not straightforward. Respect for the values of freedom of expression and freedom of speech means that governments have no greater a right than any other to claim “the truth”. On the contrary, citizens are expected to call into question information provided by governments. In fact, today, evidence suggests that many citizens believe that mis- and disinformation is to a large extent a problem associated with the behaviour of politicians and other domestic actors. Such accusations were seen during the COVID crisis, when many governments were accused of mis- and dis-information, for example around masking, vaccine safety, and lockdowns.
In our democracies, information integrity is built around a large number of actors, including most importantly the free and independent media, researchers and broader civil society, that provide for a complex system of checks and balances in the constant search for "the truth".
In this complex environment, how can governments contribute to combating mis- and disinformation, which today threatens the democratic system by polarising views and preventing policy debates?
Build societies’ resilience to information threats
Recent health, economic and geopolitical crises have highlighted the urgency for governments to strengthen their capacity to respond to the spread of false and misleading information, while simultaneously building more resilient societies better prepared to handle crises. The challenges faced demand a whole-of-society-approach.
First, governments should help citizens become more digitally literate so that they can identify false information before they spread it, intentionally or not. Increasing societal resilience also means supporting a diverse and independent media sector which can give voice to all viewpoints. Finally, new partnerships between civil society, the media, social media platforms and governments need to be built to help pre-bunk and de-bunk mis- and disinformation.
Also on the Forum Network: Prebunking: Staying ahead of the curve on misinformation by Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden
Strengthen governments’ resilience
While not the ultimate actor in information provision, governments themselves will have to step up their capacities in the information space by strengthening inter-agency coordination mechanisms, developing innovative strategies and tools, and working with international partners to build knowledge of the origins and pathways of mis- and disinformation. Another specific avenue is to help ensure the role of public communication in reinforcing an information space conducive to democracy. Breaking down internal silos to facilitate collaboration; building partnerships with external stakeholders like fact-checkers; and focusing on efforts to reach all segments of society with accurate information will all be important.
Test new approaches to regulation and increase transparency
Regulatory responses that help establish effective transparency frameworks around content moderation processes and decisions, build understanding of the role of algorithms in the spread of mis- and disinformation and promote a fairer and more responsible business environment are all key priorities. Such constructive and process-based regulation is all the more critical to safeguard against government interference in the free flow of information and impingement upon one of the foundational values of democracy—the right to free and open speech.
The implementation of the EU’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act will therefore be a valuable opportunity to identify potential applications outside of Europe. Moving forward, developing a common understanding of the values and objectives of regulation, applying lessons from other regulatory contexts and identifying where interventions can be most effective in increasing transparency and integrity across the information space will be essential.
[The OECD] will soon be launching an online platform—the DIS/MIS Resource Hub—to provide governments with needed resources and examples of effective practices.
Mis- and disinformation throw long shadows over our democracies and negatively affect institutions and citizens alike. However, by working together with citizens, media, civil society and other stakeholders, policymakers and public servants do have a growing scope for action to help turn the tide in the fight for information integrity.
Through its Reinforcing Democracy Initiative, the OECD is proud to be working with countries to provide them with concrete tools to help them in this effort and will soon be launching an online platform—the DIS/MIS Resource Hub—to provide governments with needed resources and examples of effective practices.
 “Misinformation” can be defined as false or inaccurate information that is shared unknowingly and is not disseminated with the intention of deceiving the public, whereas “disinformation” is usually defined as false, inaccurate, or misleading information deliberately created, presented and disseminated (Wardle and Derakshan, 2017)
Also on the Forum Network: Democracy: What’s at stake? by Elsa Pilichowski, Director for Public Governance, and Director for Public Affairs and Communications (a.i.), OECD
Our modern democracies, while not without flaws, are worth fighting for: they guarantee us many freedoms that we now take for granted. The OECD is at the forefront of the effort to advance concrete actions to address the pressing challenges facing democracies today.