How can local government leaders counter the misleading and inaccurate messages that often dominate our information channels, especially after a disaster or when there’s a public health crisis?

Explaining the problem and potential solutions, Eileen O’Connor, senior VP for Communications, Policy, and Advocacy, the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke at the National Homeland Security Consortium meeting in January 2024.

Factors that have led to an increase in misinformation and disinformation include the ascendency of cable talk shows, new technologies, and the profit motive.  The spree of buying and consolidating media outlets by large corporations has driven the effort to increase cash from ads to the bottom line.  It also has led to cost reductions and the elimination of traditional reporting jobs, as well as newspapers themselves and news bureaus for those that remain.  Broadcast news field coverage has often been replaced with talking heads and opinion shows for the same reason—it costs less.

As more people turn to the Internet for news and information, targeted ads and algorithms have become ways to spread false information or even to recruit terrorists.  As a result of all these changes, people are less inclined to trust government and often turn to other sources of information in an emergency.

Here are five tips that can help combat the growth of misinformation and disinformation:

  1. Use trusted messengers.  Look for leaders of groups and sub-groups to connect with the broader community.
  2. Fill information gaps quickly with accurate information; explain what you are doing; and find the facts when all are not yet known.
  3. Be transparent about how decisions are made.
  4. Repeat actionable information.
  5. Build trust in “blue sky times” when there is no crisis.

To find those trusted messengers, O’Connor urges leaders to think about who they talk to on a daily basis, noting that it is important to build strong networks with a wide range of people and groups.  In an era when AI and ChatGPT are flourishing, the importance of media literacy is growing, she notes.

Teaching the scientific method can help people sort through the onslaught of misinformation. They can learn to look at the source of information, the basis of a study, the objectives of the information, and whether or not proper research methods are used. 

In a world dominated by social media, leaders need to be alert to what is being shared online and to be proactive themselves and respond quickly to misinformation.  Monitoring social media is important to avoid surprises so governments can respond quickly to squash rumors or misinformation.  Being prepared before there’s a crisis is essential to protecting residents.  And while using technology tools like websites helps get the word out, nothing is more important than building relationships with key groups and individuals.  Combating misinformation and disinformation requires a diverse team to convey messages that will be trusted.

More resources on combating misinformation with effective community communication can be found at the ICMA Learning Lab, including:

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