Hannah Waltz, a consultant for PEN America’s Disinformation and Community Engagement program, is the author of the recent PEN America report Building Resilience: Identifying Community Solutions to Targeted Disinformation.
The threat posed by disinformation does not exist in a vacuum. It is squarely situated in a perfect storm of crises: the prioritization of clickable content online over truth, the financial crisis facing local news, and the hands-off approach employed by social media companies toward mis- and disinformation.
Among the many examples of this dynamic, local news giants like McClatchy and Gannett laid off record numbers of journalists in 2022, and Meta recently cut staff on teams meant to address election disinformation. Compounding these challenges, this month a federal judge barred government agencies from communicating with social media platforms about a significant set of content categories. That decision has been paused by an appeals court, but it is clear that communities beset by disinformation are on their own.
The communities most targeted by disinformation are often the same ones dealing with a host of other difficulties. Election disinformation disproportionately harms the least supported and represented groups: communities of color, low-wealth, rural, LGBTQ+, and diaspora communities, among others. It targets and exploits historical cultural traumas, misrepresents and demonizes certain identities, inhibits the exercise of free expression, and can foster disenfranchisement. Untouched, these disinformation narratives—routinely entangled with broader anti-democratic and xenophobic narratives and racist rhetoric—ultimately jeopardize the country’s advancement toward a multicultural and multiracial democracy.
But all is not lost. PEN America’s recent report, Building Resilience: Identifying Community Solutions to Targeted Disinformation, found that investing in trusted messengers like local journalists and community leaders can help hold falsehoods at bay. The work of our partners—faith leaders, journalists, community activists and others—showed that we are not powerless in the fight against disinformation. But we must build new approaches and alliances to succeed. This includes collaborations where they might not be expected: between journalists and faith leaders and librarians, for example.
The report highlights the success that local journalists and community leaders– especially in non-English speaking communities in Florida, Texas, and Arizona– are finding in getting credible, culturally relevant information to their readers and communities before disinformation reaches them.
Many news consumers get their news in a language other than English. The report found that when mainstream media ignores the cultural and community contexts in communities, people may inadvertently turn to less credible information sources. Diaspora, in-language, and community news organizations are filling these gaps with fact-based and culturally relevant news—but often face funding struggles. Supporting this community-responsive approach can expand access to credible information for communities that are typically ignored or exploited.
These realities underscore the need for a more holistic approach to disinformation, one that goes beyond simply debunking false stories and focuses on media and civic literacy built to address specific information needs. This new approach can and should be built on trust, and should be proactive.
More work is needed to create connective tissue between those helping to build community resilience to disinformation. In Miami, PEN America’s partners stressed the prevalence of disinformation that capitalizes on historical traumas on Spanish-language radio. In-language fact-checkers and organizations serving diaspora communities are collaborating to track and respond to it effectively. In Dallas-Fort Worth, faith communities—given their built-in focus on social cohesion and often pivotal influence on how Texans engage in the civic space—and local journalists are joining forces to counter divisive disinformation narratives. In Phoenix, amid calls for greater collaboration between community media and organizers, we witnessed a phenomenally impactful Spanish-language news outlet, which primarily operates via WhatsApp, offer accurate information directly responsive to questions about COVID-19 and voting. But the cross-sector collaboration between journalists and other parties must expand to be more broadly effective, and that will require substantial financial support.
This cadre of community leaders, journalists, faith leaders, librarians and others must work together with tech platforms, elected officials, and public institutions to find solutions to disinformation. We found that we can no longer risk missing the forest for the trees; we must adopt a more panoramic and collaborative view, one that breaks down silos between the efforts toward rebuilding community media and local news and shoring up disinformation defenses. This approach, along with centering collaboration, would distribute capital to those already doing the work, and remove barriers between policymakers and local voices.
As trust in institutions erodes and tech platforms shirk their responsibilities to fight disinformation, trusted figures within communities offer the greatest defense against falsehoods and efforts to deceive. The contentious election cycle ahead must focus on supporting and sharing the good work already happening in communities around the country. These efforts must be part of the strategy for fighting disinformation—or else we risk spinning our wheels and adding to the peril we face.