Kathy Im, Director of Journalism and Media, discusses the work to counter dis- and misinformation and support inclusive news and narratives for a well-informed public.
The scale and speed by which disinformation travels impacts the lives of ordinary people in profound and damaging ways. Americans are being misled, manipulated, and driven apart, and the most marginalized communities—immigrants, communities of color, people with limited incomes in rural areas, and LGBTQ+ people—suffer the severest consequences as a result.
The Journalism and Media program invests in just and inclusive news and narratives to create the conditions for a well-informed and engaged American public to collaboratively build a more equitable, democratic society. But media designed to advance the public good, hold power to account, or build mutual understanding must compete with false news, damaging narratives, and conspiracy theories created by unreliable sources with the intent to sow confusion and distrust.
For over a year, our program has been considering how we might address disinformation. We have yet to find an easy path or solution. We have, however, prioritized our initial investments in helping to build the resiliency of targeted and vulnerable communities to withstand and combat disinformation. This has included grants to the Disinfo Defense League (DDL), a distributed national network of organizers, researchers, and experts disrupting online racialized disinformation; and Free Press, which has been leading efforts to develop a policy agenda to confront threats to democracy, health, and safety in online spaces. DDL and Free Press join other MacArthur grantees that have created anti-disinformation strategies of their own.
Groups such as the Kairos Fellowship, Media Justice, Color of Change, and Voto Latino have long track records of amplifying the voices and increasing the civic participation of people and communities historically marginalized from full participation in our media and democracy, primarily using the social web, digital technologies, and popular culture to do so. We view the work of these organizations as part of a continuum of media-related activities critical to creating a healthy and inclusive media ecosystem that supports and undergirds a strong, participatory democracy.
Furthermore, with our colleagues in Technology in the Public Interest, we co-fund a number of organizations working at the intersection of media and technology, such as Data and Society Research Institute and the Knight First Amendment Institute. These organizations are conducting research to better understand how algorithms aid the spread and magnification of disinformation across social media platforms and are working to hold those platforms accountable for the impact their systems are having on democracy.
Meanwhile, our journalism grantees are tackling the issue through accountability and investigative reporting. On FRONTLINE, films including Lies, Politics and Democracy and American Insurrection explore disinformation and hate and their political consequences and impact on life, safety, and belonging of people of color and other marginalized groups. The Markup is keeping track of the evolving disinformation threats and the corporate owned platforms that let them thrive. And TransLash Media is telling transgender stories to save trans lives, people who have become a major target of malicious disinformation.
Unfortunately, “documentaries” have become another major vector of disinformation, spreading falsehoods, and propagating harmful tropes. But within the independent documentary community, a robust conversation is taking place about holding the field to the highest of standards in honoring and keeping safe the people featured in documentary films and interrogating who should be telling what stories and to whom and how. The Documentary Accountability Working Group—comprised of many MacArthur grantees, including Working Films, ITVS, YouthFX, Color Congress, and the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University–is leading this effort to ensure that documentaries, particularly those supported by public funds and philanthropy and intended to address and illuminate social issues, are made with the utmost care and truth.
Still, with all these activities added together and others not mentioned here, we know that we have to do much more. Luckily many others across policy, advocacy, philanthropy, academia, and business are also examining what can be done and we hope to learn from them. MacArthur has supported the creation and circulation of fact-based, credible news and information for 40 years, and we will continue to do so. But disinformation has the power to undermine everything we have built and support. Joining with others to find a path toward reversing and minimizing the long-term threat of disinformation to our democracy will be one of our core priorities for years to come.
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