–December 2020

In the US, the 2020 presidential campaign has been called the “misinformation election.” But however significant the results may be, the problem of misinformation is much larger and more persistent than a single event.

Recently WITNESS hosted a workshop on deepfakes and visual misinformation for activists and researchers based in the US, where we presented our research on the state of synthetic media, gave tips on visual verification, and asked for input on some of the concerns that participants had around misinformation as a whole.

This US workshop was an extension of a series of workshops led by WITNESS in Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia – the first convenings on deepfakes to take place in the Global South.

talking heads vector

We delivered the workshop in partnership with MediaJustice, an organization that brought in not only a rich network of connections with grassroots organizers across the country, but also a wealth of expertise on accessibility measures – and you can read about the workshop from their perspective on the MediaJustice blog.

At the end of this post, we’ve also included some visual notes on the proceedings of the workshop captured by illustrator Emily Simons, which give a fantastic overview of the topics discussed.

Beyond the high-level overview, it’s worth delving into some of the notable points to come out of the workshop. For example: a rich discussion on how to combat misinformation through empathy, understanding, and an eye for crafting counter-narratives.

The “emotional core” of misinformation

In one group discussion, a participant talked about searching for the “emotional core” of misinformation. That’s to say that, while misinformed narratives can seem far-fetched to people in a different information ecosystem, there’s usually an emotional message beneath the surface that resonates with some section of the audience.

For example, the QAnon conspiracy theory – which for non-believers is utterly bizarre – taps into a legitimate observation that American (and indeed global) politics is dominated by wealthy, powerful elites, and that many behind-the-scenes dealings are hidden from ordinary people. Like many conspiracy theories, QAnon then adds a sprinkling of sensationalism (Satanism, child abuse), gives its followers a comforting feeling of “insider knowledge,” and dangles the prospect that a singular figure (Trump) will arrive to upend the system once and for all.

So, in order to counter such misinformation, we need to understand what is literally being said, but also recognize the subtext: vulnerability, feelings of powerlessness, and political discontentment.

Other participants raised the importance of clear, simple, unwavering counter-messaging to combat certain falsehoods that are repeatedly aired on social and mainstream media. A prime example here is the baseless claims of voter fraud promoted by the Trump campaign, and the need to respond with a consistent – and insistent – positive message: That the voting process is as secure is it has ever been, and that no investigation has uncovered widespread voter fraud anywhere in the US.

Practicing verification

Another highlight of the disinformation workshop was a series of practical exercises on verification. Having first seen a short presentation with some verification tips, participants were assigned a series of exercises to practice some of the basics of reverse image and video search.

Some of the participants had used these tools before, but many had not – and welcomed the chance to get practical experience using them to investigate real posts from social media. This points towards the usefulness of simple drills and exercises in improving general response to misinformation, and was inspired by Mike Caulfield‘s approach to media literacy education, which emphasizes simple investigation techniques that can be made second nature through repetition.

Visual verification tips illustration
A slide from the visual verification presentation

Ongoing work

With the US election now behind us – and a diminishing threat from attempts by the Trump campaign to overturn results – the focus of misinformation research here can start to broaden in the coming year.

WITNESS is committed to taking this work into 2021, and drawing on the strength of old and new networks to combat the problem. We hope to see you there!


Visual notes by Emily Simons

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