Digital literacy: the basics of dealing with disinformation, lies and propaganda

Outraged by the never-ending blatant lies by the likes of Putin, Xi, Orban and Trump? Then make sure you don’t inadvertently help spread their propaganda. Because that’s what it is: their ‘firehose of falsehood‘ is a propaganda technique bombarding us with a large number of messages that are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels without regard for truth or consistency.

Their goal is to confuse and overwhelm us with so many falsehoods and contradictory messages that we no longer know — or even care — what is true or false and to discourage us from acting. It’s up to us not to let them. Or worse: to do their work for them. Don’t help them pollute the information space by repeating their lies — not even their words. Deny them an audience. Don’t give them any oxygen. Just 100% ignore. Even — especially! — if you’re outraged: step away. Go for a walk, have a coffee, cuddle your pets.

Here’s how to avoid spreading propaganda, disinformation, conspiracy theories and other harmful information inadvertently.

The DON’Ts

  • DON’T engage with lies/disinfo/propaganda. Deny them an audience by not giving them any traction. That means:
  • DON’T repost lies/disinfo/propaganda 1
  • DON’T quote-post lies/disinfo/propaganda 1, 2
  • DON’T like lies/disinfo/propaganda 1
  • DON’T reply to lies/disinfo/propaganda — not even to correct them 1, 3
  • DON’T link to lies/disinfo/propaganda 1, 4
  • DON’T cross-post lies/disinfo/propaganda between social media platforms 5
  • DON’T use their hashtags — unless you are sure you can outnumber them with your own message 1, 6
  • DON’T use their words, terms, frames, concepts 6
  • DON’T reinforce associations between things that in reality have no connection 6
  • DON’T repeat lies/disinfo/propaganda — not even to counter them 6
  • DON’T tag or @mention the account if you absolutely must fact-check or report about it 1
  • DON’T follow accounts that post or regularly spread lies/disinfo/propaganda 1
  • DON’T amplify speculation on events, especially in war time and terrorist attacks 9

The DO’s

  • DO flood the zone with your narrative and with positive truths (not denials of untruths) 7
  • DO repeat truths, and keep repeating them, a thousand times
  • DO amplify independent, unbiased, high-quality journalism
  • DO unfollow accounts that post or regularly spread lies/disinfo/propaganda
  • DO mute accounts that post or regularly spread lies/disinfo/propaganda 8
  • DO block and report accounts that reply to your tweets with intentional lies/disinfo/propaganda
  • DO call out lies and hold officials to account — but in a responsible way: use our do’s and don’ts
  • DO use screenshots of posts, articles, videos — ideally watermarked “false” — but only if you absolutely must fact-check or report about them
  • DO provide context if you absolutely must fact-check or report about lies/disinfo/propaganda
  • DO use the “truth sandwich technique (see below) if you absolutely must fact-check or report about lies/disinfo/propaganda

For journalists and editors

You may feel it is your job to report what politicians, officials, government leaders, their cronies and their “spokes” people say, even if it’s lies/disinfo/propaganda. But it isn’t. Your job is to report the truth.

“If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the window and find out which is true.”

So avoid retelling the lies. Especially avoid putting them in headlines, leads and tweets. As a journalist or editor you know about positioning as a form of emphasis. So avoid putting the lies first or last. Here’s how to serve your readers a tasty truth sandwich. Read about better practices for reporting on extremism and manipulation here. And for dessert, we have this splendid example of how to tweet:

Join our campaign

Sick of the outrageous lies you see on social media? Then join our campaign. To those of your family, friends and connections who inadvertently help boost lies, disinformation, propaganda or conspiracy theories, please invite them to read this article. And if you see a quote-post of a blatant lie, a reply to a post with dangerous disinformation, or a journalist or headline “reporting” a lie by repeating it — and thus spreading it! — consider dropping them a private message. Or tag their author in a tweet linking to this article. Thank you for making a difference!

Join our training

Are you a communication professional and interested in learning more? Defend Democracy has developed Act On Disinfo: a series of interactive trainings on how to deal with online information manipulation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda and other harmful information activities. If interested, get in touch. Defend Democracy is not only working to monitor, analyse and expose information manipulation and foreign interference, we are also experienced digital strategic communication practitioners and happy to share our skills.

How to share information responsibly in war time

Our do’s and don’ts are also highly recommended for sharing information responsibly in war time. Learn more on how this applies to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West by listening to our exchange with experts from EU, NATO and others.

1 This will only help algorithms boost the ranking and visibility of the lies/disinformation/conspiracy theory/propaganda, and thus grow their audience.

2 Even a quote-repost saying “This is a lie” or providing context or a fact-check is still… a shared post. It spreads the lies and propaganda, it boosts their ranking and visibility, it grows their audience.

3 We are aware that in the U.S. it has become almost a sport to “ratio” tweets. But again, this will only help boost the algorithmic ranking and thus the visibility and audience of the lies/disinformation/propaganda. Let the liars pollute their filter bubble — not yours.

4 Posting links to a misleading story — even when rebutting it — only serves to spread it, to grow its audience and to boost it in search algorithms.

5 This will only spread the lies/disinformation/propaganda across platforms, grow their audience and increase pollution.

6 This will impact our brains. Did you ever try not to think of an elephant? Unless you want the lies/disinformation/propaganda to be believed by more people and to become normalised in everyday language and society, don’t use them.

7 How to do this? Say the truth and put it first. So instead of writing “Lawmaker X claims vaccines don’t work, but this is a dangerous lie.” write: “Approved vaccines save lives. Lies like lawmaker X’s can be lethal.” And instead of saying: “The President claims the elections are r*gged.” say: “Voters decided in free and fair elections. The President’s lies are undermining our democracy.”

8 Not following a propaganda/disinformation/conspiracy account is not enough, as their post will keep showing up in your timeline when someone shares or replies to them. Don’t credit their lies with your unnecessary views. Deny them an audience. Trust us: you will feel much more peaceful when not seeing those blatant lies and outrageous propaganda in your timeline any more.

9 Added to our list as Russia is now (2022) conducting a full-out hybrid war on Ukraine and the West.

The do’s and don’ts in this article are based on our years of hands-on experience in digital strategy, advocacy, campaigning and communications, on our expertise in disinformation, digital technology, psychology and philosophy of science and technology, and last but not least on the work and feedback of other experts. Suggestions for more do’s and don’ts? Tweet us at @DefendDemocracy. For further reading: The vulnerable cyborg. Arguments for humane digital technology, and how to tackle disinformation.