A man using a laptop.
Governments can combat misinformation by encouraging citizens to be better information consumers. Image by Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS
  • diplomacy

Combating misinformation to start with digital literacy

Maeve Bannister October 18, 2023

Supporting independent media, teaching digital literacy and encouraging citizens to be better information consumers are some of the ways a senior White House official believes governments across the globe could combat misinformation.

During a visit to the Pacific and Australia, United States Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Affairs Elizabeth Allen has prioritised talks with US allies on ways to strengthen the global information environment.

The under secretary’s visit coincides with Australian voters rejecting an Indigenous voice to parliament, following a campaign often characterised by misinformation, disinformation and politicisation.

At a roundtable with reporters in Sydney during the Australian leg of her tour, Ms Allen said one of the most important things a government could do to combat misinformation was to prioritise its own credibility.

“The credibility of different actors, state and non-state, are affected by whether or not people know them to be spreading propaganda or know them to be wilfully spreading misinformation,” she said.

“It’s (government’s) responsibility to be communicating truthful information, it’s our responsibility to have a vision that is positive and proactive.”

Ms Allen said, alternatively, trying to counter misinformation simply by producing the truth was “woefully inadequate” in the modern era.

“The evolution of the information space has been one of the most consequential drivers of how we have gotten to where we are geopolitically across the world right now,” she said.

“The information space is now a contested theatre of competition.”

Although governments tended to focus on what its message was, Ms Allen said more thought could be put into reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t have been reached through traditional communication channels.

For example, the Biden administration has invited social media influencers along with traditional media reporters to events and briefings in order to ensure its message is widely shared on many different platforms.

“As a US government, we have a specific voice and our credibility is important to us and that means really being creative and innovative about how we’re reaching people with our messaging,” Ms Allen said.

“You don’t replace traditional tactics, you supplement them.”

While democratic governments would never be able to control the flow of content, Ms Allen said better steps could be taken to create a healthier information environment for citizens.

“For example, supporting independent media is actually one of the most important things we can do globally to make the information space healthier,” she said.

“Teaching media literacy, teaching digital literacy, helping people be better information consumers, helping them understand the difference between sources and editorial standards is critically important.”

Appointed to the under secretary position in April 2022, Ms Allen oversees the Biden administration’s public engagement to advance US foreign policy goals.

During her nine-day tour she has visited Fiji, Vanuatu and Australia and will conclude her diplomatic trip with a visit to Santiago in Chile.