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Empowering community-driven alliances against social-environmental and climate disinformation

Since Costa Rica, navigating new alliances

In a world filled with information and technology, we find ourselves constantly bombarded with news and narratives that shape our perceptions of reality. However, not all information presented to us is genuine or accurate, leading to the distortion of facts and manipulation of public opinion. In this essay, we will delve into the historical and systemic roots of media manipulation, focusing on the unique challenges posed by social-environmental and climate disinformation. 

RightsCon in Costa Rica proved a serendipitous occasion for us, Jessica, Lori and Eliana, to come together and delve deeply into issues around tech, media, and community-driven trustworthy initiatives. We found ourselves drawn to each other’s discussions during the conference and the Green Screen Coalition event, where we shared our experiences and insights on countering disinformation, empowering local journalism, and fostering information ecosystems in our respective global south countries. Beyond the conference, and as the authors of this text, our newfound alliance has flourished and we continue to support one another in our collective mission to reflect on the systemic challenges to promoting trustworthy ecosystems in the digital age.

Uncovering the historical roots of media manipulation

The rise of disinformation has become a concerning global issue. To truly understand the complexities of social-environmental and climate disinformation, and how it differs from other types of disinformation, we must dig down to the roots of media manipulation. Information dissemination has always been influenced by those in positions of power seeking to shape public opinion and advance their own agendas. On climate and environmental issues, the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries have played a significant role in (mis)shaping public narratives through propaganda and misinformation. The economic power of these industries has allowed them to exert significant influence over media outlets, by funding campaigns that promote their interests and downplay the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. Their disinformation campaigns have been strategically designed to sow doubt, deny scientific consensus, and divert attention away from the pressing need for sustainable practices.

Clouds 1 by Kira Simon-Kennedy (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Clouds 1 by Kira Simon-Kennedy (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The proliferation of media platforms and digital technologies in recent years has further intensified the dissemination of disinformation, making it even more challenging for individuals to discern reliable sources from misleading ones. Moreover, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few powerful corporations has limited diverse voices and perspectives, perpetuating the dominance of biased narratives. In this context, critical reflection on who disseminates information and their underlying motives becomes crucial.

By identifying the vested interests that seek to maintain the status quo, and by challenging the concentration of knowledge and media power in the hands of those with neoliberal agendas, we can foster transparency, promote independent journalism, and encourage diverse and decentralized information ecosystems, to counter the insidious influence of media manipulation.

Recognizing the historical underpinnings of media manipulation is vital to understanding its present manifestations and developing effective strategies to combat social-environmental and climate disinformation. As we strive to build trustworthy information ecosystems, we must confront power dynamics and advocate for a more inclusive and pluralistic media landscape that empowers communities and promotes informed decision-making.

Understanding the distinct nature of social-environmental and climate disinformation

Social-environmental and climate disinformation presents unique challenges due to the size and power of the companies and governments involved. By undermining scientific consensus and delaying  necessary action, the manipulation of climate information has far-reaching consequences for our planet and its inhabitants. Disinformation on climate change intensifies the vulnerability of communities already facing environmental challenges, with global south countries in particular bearing the brunt, despite contributing minimally to its causes. Disinformation campaigns in these regions further exacerbate the situation, hampering efforts to address the crisis.

Empowering solutions through local journalism and community-driven information ecosystems

To combat social-environmental and climate disinformation effectively, we must turn to the power of local journalism and community-driven information ecosystems.

By amplifying diverse voices and conducting transparent, often courageous, reporting, local journalists play a crucial role in countering false narratives. The accurate, context-specific information they provide empowers communities to make informed decisions and actively fight disinformation.

Community-driven information ecosystems can also challenge disinformation and have the potential to rebuild trust. When local communities produce, disseminate, and fact-check information, they become less susceptible to manipulation by external sources. This kind of decentralized approach shifts the narrative power back to the people, fostering resilience against disinformation.

Territorial-based efforts for climate justice

In Costa Rica, it became ever more evident that the battle against false narratives requires collective action and a deep understanding of its historical and systemic roots. By recognizing the impact of information manipulation on marginalized communities and the environment, we can work towards empowering territorial-based efforts to enhance community-driven information ecosystems. 

As highlighted by the leaders of COIAB (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon), the knowledge of local communities, through their own organizations, is fundamental for weaving dialogues between territories and in connection with them. Jader Gama told us about Amazonian Cosmotechniques, a method for envisioning the relationship between technique and culture, which articulates technological autonomy, social participation and digital sovereignty, and is grounded in the plurality of Amazonian ways of life and knowledge management. Expanding beyond forest fires, mining and deforestation, Jéssica Botelho, from the CPA (Grassroots Audiovisual Center), reflected on the Amazonian media ecosystem and human rights violations that stem from the denial of access to information, low internet connectivity and news deserts.

Clouds 2 by Kira Simon-Kennedy (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Clouds 2 by Kira Simon-Kennedy (CC BY-NC 4.0)

All these people spoke of autonomy and the solutions that arise in the territories. The empowerment of these organizations in international spaces such as RightsCon and the Green Screen Coalition represents a genuine opportunity for institutional strengthening for local organizations. Still, there remain challenges for the potential of these groups and local organizations to be fully realized within the context of global solutions.

The rich exchange of experiences shared in Costa Rica made it clear that the fight against false climate narratives must be multifactorial, multisectoral and take place at different scales. Together, we must build alliances that unite individuals from global south countries and beyond, fostering a shared commitment to combat social-environmental and climate disinformation and nurture trustworthy, community-driven information ecosystems that inform decision-making to shape a sustainable future for all.

Eliana Quiroz is the HIVOS Business Development Manager for LATAM on the field of Civic Rights in a Digital Age. She is member of the Board of InternetBolivia.org, a fellow of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) and visiting researcher at the Digital Disinformation Hub of the Leibniz Institute for Media Research (Hamburg-Germany). Eliana coordinated and co-authored one of the first academic handbooks on Internet and society in Bolivia. She is the first Head of E-Government at AGETIC (E-Government and ICTs Agency of the National State). Since 2013, Eliana has written a biweekly op-ed column, “Internet a la Boliviana”, for the national newspaper La Razón.

Jessica Botelho is a journalist and researcher, working in data monitoring and socio-environmental disinformation. She is currently a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at UFRJ. Her research examines journalistic narratives about deforestation during the Bolsonaro government from the communication networks of media based in the Amazon. She coordinates the Centro Popular do Audiovisual Collective, an organization that works to strengthen communication networks in the Amazon that work on socio-environmental issues, cultural diversity and human rights.

Lori Regattieri is a social-environmental-climate justice tech and movement builder and senior fellow in Trustworthy AI at Mozilla Foundation. As an activist and communications advisor, she has more than 15 years dedicated to campaigns, mobilization and collective action supporting grassroots movements in Brazil. She’s also a research associate at Netlab (UFRJ), a member of the Network of Latin American Studies of Surveillance, Technology and Society (LAVITS), Design Justice Network (Allied Media) and the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence (NoE) focused on researching Violent Online Political Extremism. Lori holds a B.A. in Social Work and MA in Communication and Territoriality from the University of Espirito Santo (UFES/Brasil). In 2021, she completed her PhD in Communication and Culture from the University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) with the thesis “Algorithmization of life”. Over the years, her research has focused on science and technology studies (STS), cybernetics, media ecology, propaganda and disinformation, reparation epistemologies and decolonial approaches to increase justice and reduce harms in AI.