Faktabaari and the University of Helsinki organize a joint course on Disinformation and Digital Information Literacy

The course offers tools and new perspectives on digital information literacy. In this article, three researchers give their less-discussed angles.

Together with the University of Helsinki, Faktabaari educates future media professionals in DIL and fact-checking in the course Disinformation and Digital Information Literacy (DIL).

The course, now organized for the second time, aims to provide a critical and contextualized approach to disinformation studies and equip students to better understand the forms, narratives, policies, and technologies of disinformation and the history and role of propaganda in authoritarian and democratic countries.

Students will also gain knowledge of journalistic, policy, and civil society attempts to combat disinformation.

Faktabaari’s executive director, Mikko Salo, and editor, Pipsa Havula, were among the speakers.

“A Quick Buck by Disinformation”

Among the other lecturers, Assistant Professor Carlos Diaz Ruiz from Hanken School of Economics discussed the market-oriented focus on disinformation.

“A market-oriented approach to disinformation examines the financial incentives that nudge actors to circulate disinformation. Whether they are publishers, social media influencers, or digital platforms, the digital advertising market is built in such a way that it rewards the most incendiary content, which often includes disinformation and hate speech,” he says.

His research revolves around marketing strategy, market-shaping, and consumer culture. As a business anthropologist, he uses in-depth research methods such as ethnography to design consumer-led marketing strategies.

He says that monetizing online content through engagement, such as likes and comments, creates an environment where the publisher that makes the most engaging content reaps the largest financial rewards. 

“In this engagement game, the content likely to go viral is emotionally charged content that makes people laugh or cry and drives anger or anxiety—what it does not have to be is true.”

“Whereas online disinformation has been studied as the abuse of social media by malicious actors, we cannot underestimate the financial incentives of digital platforms nudging content creators to post incendiary speech and publishers to host fake news,” he says.

”By studying the markets funneling advertising money to fake news sites, we can learn what makes them thrive. We can also start countering the influx of dark money into the advertising market.”

For regular internet users, it may be difficult to understand that many of these websites may be less motivated by political malfeasance than trying to make a quick buck with whatever content is profitable today, Diaz Ruiz says.

”If people knew how influencers make money, they may be less willing to trust them. After all, influencers make a profit out of engaging content. To make it engaging, this content preys on emotionally charged appeals, contrarian opinions, and (neo)tribal anxieties.”

Elections and AI

Associate Professor Juha Pekka Herkman from the University of Helsinki thinks that digital information literacy experts and practitioners should understand that populism is about identities and affectivity, not that much about rationality and correct information.

He spoke about elections. He does not foresee big innovations in disinformation use in the “super election year.”

”Perhaps AI is tried to apply also in (disinformation) campaigns”, Herkman says. 

”I think people are more aware of disinformation than before. This is why misinformation – false information spread unintentionally – might be even more critical in creating polarization in campaign communications than intentional disinformation or propaganda.”

Fact-Checking TikTok

Another topical theme in the course was TikTok, which has partnered with third-party fact-checkers for its content moderation since 2020.

“This happened amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 US election when the platform was heavily criticized for the overflowing of health and political mis/disinformation on the platform”, says Yang Xu, a doctoral researcher in social sciences at the University of Helsinki. 

According to Xu, fact-checkers have an advisory role in content moderation on TikTok.

”In February 2021, TikTok started to roll out a new flagging procedure for suspicious videos that are yet to be confirmed by fact-checkers,” he says.

Those unconfirmed videos are flagged first by the platform before fact-checkers fact-check them and may be ineligible for the ”For You Feed” to reduce their spread.

Fact-checking has faced many more difficulties as the new development of AI technology makes fraudulent information even more challenging to detect.

Xu says we shouldn’t forget the manipulative nature of both the (making of) videos and features provided by TikTok. He uses the word ”manipulative” neutrally in this context.

”TikTok is a short video-sharing platform with a powerful personalized recommendation system, which is also the platform’s top business secret,” he says.

Using the platform’s built-in editing features, TikTok allows users to record, edit, upload, and share videos. Those videos can spread fast like viruses if they get accelerated by TikTok’s recommendation algorithms. 

“If you think about this entire process from how a video is made to how users get to watch it on their end, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of chances that the information is manipulated or distorted from reality. AI technologies such as deepfakes would make the fact-checking work more difficult.”

He says that fact-checkers should pay attention to the fact that users also play a vital role in fighting against dis/misinformation.

”One interesting example is the trend of debunking videos that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic where many health professionals stood out and debunked myths about health misconceptions/misinformation.”

Community Guidelines as Window-Dressing

TikTok’s community policies state that the platform doesn’t allow inaccurate, misleading, or false content that may cause significant harm to individuals or society, regardless of intent.

”The community guidelines resemble a policy document produced by the platform stating all the rules regarding what is allowed and what is forbidden on the platform. However, community guidelines are not quite just ‘policies,’ considering that the platform moderators might have different moderation guidelines when doing their job,” Xu says.

In 2019, the media leaked TikTok’s internal moderation guidelines, which dragged the platform into many controversies.

”Platform scholarships mostly agree that the community guidelines are a ‘window-dressing’ performance to showcase that they ‘do care’ about a healthy online environment and users’ wellbeing,” Xu says.

”They are there for both regulative and commercial reasons: to legitimate and justify their moderation works and to appeal to advertisers and stakeholders. Therefore, we should always take these guidelines with a pinch of salt.”

Photo: Minna Aslama Horowitz

This course was designed with the support of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) and its Nordic hub NORDIS. For the course, Faktabaari has also produced two videos (one about DIL and one about fact-cheking) in cooperation with Democratic epistemic capacity in the age of algorithms (DECA) -project and EDMO Nordis -consortium.



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