Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

“Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country.”

There are no miraculous buttons you can press that will stop the spread of dangerous misinformation online. No sophisticated tech tools or algorithms transparent enough on their face to save humanity. No fact-checks that are so perfectly constructed they get around our cognitive machinery.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. On the contrary, when local media has the opportunity and resources to collaborate and work toward a common goal — that’s when strong journalism oriented around public service happens.

In 2020, we managed a pilot local fellowship project funded by Democracy Fund for First Draft that brought together five part-time fellows from battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They were based at local news organizations, with the goal of monitoring online misinformation and supporting local experiments in news collaboration.

Over the course of the year, one theme became very clear: Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country, sometimes in different languages.

Misleading claims about Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would show up in Facebook groups in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Local Colorado conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems turned up in QAnon groups in Austria. States that had the resources to monitor these narratives and collaborative infrastructure to share reporting were better equipped to inform their constituents.

Our fellows were on the ground providing this support, and each of them with a different success story or lesson about how misinformation thrives at the local level.

  • In Wisconsin, local sponsor organization Wisconsin Watch partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics to raise additional funds to employee First Draft fellow Howard Hardee full-time. Wisconsin Watch had an extensive distribution network, which meant that Hardee’s stories, which ranged from reports on Covid-19 conspiracies to toolkits for reporters covering misinformation, were reprinted by dozens of newsrooms across the state.
  • Colorado saw veteran data journalist Sandra Fish working with the newly formed Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She trained journalists and contributed to virtual community discussions with libraries and other civic institutions. WIth COLab she developed a community Q&A project where reporters answered questions about voting and elections, which was used by newsrooms across the state.
  • In Michigan, fellow Serena Maria Daniels, operating out of Bridge Detroit and with additional support from the American Press Institute, tackled the difficult problem of fighting misinformation when it’s not in English. She worked with translators to get out important voting information in languages spoken in Detroit immigrant communities and distributed copies of these materials to groceries and retail stores across the city
  • Ohio fellow Shana Black, founder of Black Girl in Cleveland, worked with Eye on Ohio. With news deserts expanding in-state following layoffs at The Plain Dealer, she worked with hyperlocal startups. And with additional funding from American Press Institute, she developed podcasts and a voting guide oriented toward the Black community.
  • Florida fellow Damon Scott worked with sponsor organization WRLN to host Facebook Live events ahead of the elections. His insights appeared in stories from the Sun Sentinal and Miami Herald. When all eyes were on Florida during the election, a flood of media requests from national reporters underscored the need for local knowledge.

As national attention turns back toward the pandemic and the economy, nothing fundamental has changed about the way that online misinformation spreads. It can and it will, and local commercial newsrooms will continue to face financial pressure and hardship, even as local nonprofit and collaborative efforts provide energy and bright spots.

Humans matter. Training and tools and research are badly needed but alone are not enough: to increase impact we need to invest in local talent and develop leadership, providing national support in ways that make sense on the ground. One size never fits all.

Shaydanay Urbani is partnerships and programs manager for First Draft. Nancy Watzman is director of the media consultancy Lynx LLC.

There are no miraculous buttons you can press that will stop the spread of dangerous misinformation online. No sophisticated tech tools or algorithms transparent enough on their face to save humanity. No fact-checks that are so perfectly constructed they get around our cognitive machinery.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. On the contrary, when local media has the opportunity and resources to collaborate and work toward a common goal — that’s when strong journalism oriented around public service happens.

In 2020, we managed a pilot local fellowship project funded by Democracy Fund for First Draft that brought together five part-time fellows from battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They were based at local news organizations, with the goal of monitoring online misinformation and supporting local experiments in news collaboration.

Over the course of the year, one theme became very clear: Again and again, we found that the most damaging misinformation narratives started as local rumors, memes, and misleading photos — repackaged and reshared across the country, sometimes in different languages.

Misleading claims about Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would show up in Facebook groups in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Local Colorado conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems turned up in QAnon groups in Austria. States that had the resources to monitor these narratives and collaborative infrastructure to share reporting were better equipped to inform their constituents.

Our fellows were on the ground providing this support, and each of them with a different success story or lesson about how misinformation thrives at the local level.

  • In Wisconsin, local sponsor organization Wisconsin Watch partnered with the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics to raise additional funds to employee First Draft fellow Howard Hardee full-time. Wisconsin Watch had an extensive distribution network, which meant that Hardee’s stories, which ranged from reports on Covid-19 conspiracies to toolkits for reporters covering misinformation, were reprinted by dozens of newsrooms across the state.
  • Colorado saw veteran data journalist Sandra Fish working with the newly formed Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She trained journalists and contributed to virtual community discussions with libraries and other civic institutions. WIth COLab she developed a community Q&A project where reporters answered questions about voting and elections, which was used by newsrooms across the state.
  • In Michigan, fellow Serena Maria Daniels, operating out of Bridge Detroit and with additional support from the American Press Institute, tackled the difficult problem of fighting misinformation when it’s not in English. She worked with translators to get out important voting information in languages spoken in Detroit immigrant communities and distributed copies of these materials to groceries and retail stores across the city
  • Ohio fellow Shana Black, founder of Black Girl in Cleveland, worked with Eye on Ohio. With news deserts expanding in-state following layoffs at The Plain Dealer, she worked with hyperlocal startups. And with additional funding from American Press Institute, she developed podcasts and a voting guide oriented toward the Black community.
  • Florida fellow Damon Scott worked with sponsor organization WRLN to host Facebook Live events ahead of the elections. His insights appeared in stories from the Sun Sentinal and Miami Herald. When all eyes were on Florida during the election, a flood of media requests from national reporters underscored the need for local knowledge.

As national attention turns back toward the pandemic and the economy, nothing fundamental has changed about the way that online misinformation spreads. It can and it will, and local commercial newsrooms will continue to face financial pressure and hardship, even as local nonprofit and collaborative efforts provide energy and bright spots.

Humans matter. Training and tools and research are badly needed but alone are not enough: to increase impact we need to invest in local talent and develop leadership, providing national support in ways that make sense on the ground. One size never fits all.

Shaydanay Urbani is partnerships and programs manager for First Draft. Nancy Watzman is director of the media consultancy Lynx LLC.

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