Why Nobelists Are Joining the Fight Against Disinformation’s Dangers

July 12, 2023
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Nobel laureate and journalist Maria Ressa called on participants at a Nobel summit to combat disinformation. Photo: Karen Sayre, Nobel Prize Outreach.

WatchDog Opinion: Why Nobelists Are Joining the Fight Against Disinformation’s Dangers

By Joseph A. Davis

When we hear from scientists and journalists about their growing concerns regarding disinformation, it is easy to lose heart. But when the smartest and most courageous of them vow to take on the disinformation challenge, it is equally easy to find hope.

That dynamic was in play at a top-level meeting on the disinformation problem, held in Washington, D.C., May 24-26, and co-hosted by the Nobel Foundation and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in partnership with the Knight Foundation.

The Nobel Prize Summit certainly offered hope that people who care about the truth can make a difference. One such person is Maria Ressa, a Nobel-winning Philippine journalist who has been showing the way for those who need the courage to stand up to autocrats. She gave a keynote address at the event.


‘The only weapon for the journalist

to fight back is to shine the light.’

                                  — Maria Ressa,

                    Journalist and Nobelist


“The only weapon for the journalist to fight back is to shine the light,” Ressa told the May 24 audience. For her, the term “disinformation” accurately captures today’s environment, describing as it does not honest mistakes but rather a deliberate manipulation.

Ressa offered a 10-point plan to deal with such disinformation. It starts with fact-checking and then goes on to seek taming of the lobbying, advertising and PR industries that impact almost everything journalists do.


A transformational challenge

What the event made clear was that disinformation is more than just a new wrinkle for journalists — but a transformational challenge to science and society as well.

It was heartening, then, to see the stature of both the institutional partners behind the gathering and the speakers joining its showdown over disinformation. Attendees heard from some 10 Nobel laureates, along with figures like U.N. Undersecretary for Global Communications Melissa Fleming, who spoke about the U.N.’s efforts to describe and control disinformation.

The range of disciplines included in the conference was also impressive: Participants included an ethicist, a magician and a poet.

University of California Professor Elizabeth Loftus explained the psychological research into the creation of false memories. Psychological anthropologist Nat Kendall-Taylor presented research on how people’s mindsets affect what they perceive. Yale University behavioral scientist Gizem Ceylan explained her research on how people develop automatic habits of sharing information on social media; she says the design of the media affects sharing.

Not only are new academic disciplines exploring these questions but new institutions are also springing up to focus and foster research into disinformation. The Swiss-based International Panel on the Information Environment stands as one example of an independent science organization studying how information spreads.


Platforms can be used to inform, misinform

Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, herself a Nobel laureate and the first Arab woman to win the prize, explained how information platforms such as Twitter, once used to inform social change movements like Arab Spring, can also be used to misinform and manipulate vulnerable audiences.

What’s worth noting is that just a few years ago, it might have been unthinkable that such top research and institutional attention would be paid to disinformation. Today, it’s a thing.

And for environmental journalists included, it’s a problem. As Fleming recently wrote in a piece entitled “rampant climate disinformation online is distorting dangers, delaying climate action.”

Explained Fleming: “Climate action is being undermined by bad actors seeking to deflect, distract, and deny efforts to save the planet. Disinformation, spread via social media, is their weapon of choice.”

[Editor’s Note: For more on the disinformation and environment topic, see our Backgrounder, “Disinformation Presents New Challenges to Environmental Journalists,” along with a pair of WatchDog Opinion columns on disinformation and climate ‘censorship’ (part one and part two).]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 27. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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