Tips for tackling disinformation in the Global South | tackling-disinformation-learning-guide | DW | 26.03.2024
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Tackling disinformation: A learning guide

Tips for tackling disinformation in the Global South

Disinformation research findings and projects often don't transfer to the Global South. Here are some tips for those looking to fund interventions outside of the West.

The pressure to find solutions to the disinformation problem has led to countless projects, initiatives, think tanks and conferences. The result: a flood of studies on disinformation's impact, and the creation of numerous tools to monitor and tackle it.

However, the models and the proposed solutions are usually developed in the Global North and evaluated from this perspective — and therefore aren't necessarily applicable to other regions.

review of misinformation intervention studies published in January 2024 found that more than 70% of them were conducted using US samples and US specific scenarios. This makes "it questionable to what extent results are transferable to other Western nations with multi-party-systems, not to speak of non-Western societies," one of the review's authors posted in a summary on X, formerly Twitter.

The extensive publication "Meeting the Challenges of Information Disorder in the Global South" also stresses the need for disinformation research to look beyond "its current preoccupation with experiences and perspectives from the Global North, which are often presumed to have universal relevance." 

The publication also highlights that academic research has so far failed to include adequate diversity on matters of geography, culture, and language as well as race, class, and gender in the field of information disorder studies.

Tackling Disinformation: Insights from the Global South with Herman Wasserman

When tackling the problem of disinformation in the Global South, disinformation expert Herman Wasserman from South Africa's Stellenbosch University is not only critical of the lack of contextual knowledge. There is also an important general misconception of the Global South being more vulnerable per se to disinformation, he says. But in reality, it is polarization, crises or other social conflicts that make countries in the Global South fertile breeding grounds for disinformation, he stresses. 

All this means it is vital for media development organizations to consider other factors when planning and implementing anti-disinformation interventions in the Global South.

Here are some tips on things to look out for.

Don't just transfer regulatory measures

Many approaches under discussion in the Global North, such as the EU's Digital Services Act or Germany's Network Enforcement Act, can't simply be transferred to other countries. This is because these approaches assume nations have functioning democratic processes and institutions as well as a separation of powers. In autocratic regimes, media regulation against disinformation is often abused to target journalists and other dissenting voices. A 2024 study by the Center for News, Technology and Innovation finds that even when interventions theoretically have the goal of curbing disinformation, the majority of "fake news" laws, either passed or actively considered from 2020 to 2023, lessen the protection of an independent press and risk the public's open access to a plurality of fact-based news.

Support local disinformation moderation

The vast majority of disinformation countermeasures on large social media platforms target English content, and often content moderators have little knowledge of local languages or the local cultural context. One 2022 analysis of moderation policies adopted for Brazil's election found the major platforms just transferred policies created for the US without considering the local context, such as what to do if there was incitement to violence. As Odanga Madung, a researcher with the Mozilla Foundation and former DW Akademie Dataship fellow points out in a 2023 opinion article for The Guardian, platforms don't do enough to stop problematic content from spreading freely. "Facebook recently parted ways with its content moderation office in Africa amid an ugly lawsuit in Kenya involving accusations of human trafficking and union busting. On the other hand, TikTok's content moderators in the Middle East and north Africa have accused the Chinese company of causing acute burnout and offering poor psychosocial support."

Advocate for the accountability of platforms

In most cases, platforms aren't held accountable for the harms caused by their algorithms and their business decisions in spreading dis-and misinformation. Coordinated advocacy efforts, especially by civil society organizations representing the Global South, are therefore necessary to put pressure on platforms to hold them responsible for their actions and policies.

A man stands in a crowd holding a placard reading A Bas La France or Down with France

A man in Niger holds a placard reading "Down with France"

Be aware of anti-Western sentiment

Donors from the Global North fund many of the anti-disinformation interventions in the Global South. At the same time, several regions in the Global South, such as sub-Saharan Africa, are experiencing an upsurge in anti-Western sentiment. This is particularly evident in former French colonies in the Sahel region. The North/South inequalities of the COVID pandemic, combined with US and European reactions to Russia's war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war have further fueled resentment against the West. The wide-ranging publication "Meeting the Challenges of Information Disorder in the Global South" highlights how local figures in the Global South contribute to information disorder by drawing on this anti-Western sentiment and laying claim to indigenous knowledge. The publication's many examples include alternative treatments for COVID-19, such as inhaling steam promoted in Tanzania, pushing a poisonous local root as a remedy in Kyrgyzstan and a variety of supposed cures in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, the study points out. Rumors about contaminated masks sent from the West to "destabilize Africa", or claims that Bill Gates would be testing vaccines in Africa, are "further indications of how information disorder in these regions often draw on long-standing anti-Western bias," the study finds. This distrust may impede the effectiveness of projects funded by the Global North. 

Don't put a target on journalists' backs

Fact-checking initiatives in the Global South, which are often funded by the Global North, may be regarded as spreading Western propaganda. The initiatives, and those working for them, are often monitored by, and become targets of, authoritarian regimes.

A man in Angola holds a large TV camera in his hand.

Journalists in aome regions of the Global South are the targets of attacks, harassment and intimidation

Bear in mind that there's a lot we don't know

So far, little robust data has been collected in the Global South on the kind of disinformation spread via encrypted messenger services such as WhatsApp and Telegram, the impact of this disinformation and how it travels between online and offline communities.

Don't perpetuate stereotypes

When designing measures to tackle disinformation in the Global South, it is important not to fall into overly negative views, warns the "Meeting the Challenges" study. "There is ... a danger that focusing on the prevalence of information disorder in the Global South can deepen stereotypes of the region as 'underdeveloped', 'chaotic', 'undemocratic,' and 'passive'. For this reason, the study concludes, "it is important to emphasize the resilient and creative ways in which many journalists, activists, and organizations across the Global South have demonstrated agency in combating the problem."

This article is part of Tackling Disinformation: A Learning Guide produced by DW Akademie.

The Learning Guide includes explainers, videos and articles aimed at helping those already working in the field or directly impacted by the issues, such as media professionals, civil society actors, DW Akademie partners and experts.

It offers insights for evaluating media development activities and rethinking approaches to disinformation, alongside practical solutions and expert advice, with a focus on the Global South and Eastern Europe.

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