Democracy is under threat from false online information, says journalism educator Linda Austin

"If a claim online makes you want to scream, cry or buy, take a breath before sharing”

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Linda Austin is an award-winning editor and journalism educator who is schooled in instructional design and experienced in developing e-learning, training and curricula for learners globally. Based in Indiana, U.S.A, she has worked with world-renowned institutions as a journalism professor and trainer. 

She has taught journalism at universities in the United States, Myanmar, China, and Romania and on a floating campus from San Diego to Cape Town. She has also led more than 179 highly rated training events – online and in-person – reaching more than 12,000 journalists globally. 

Recently, Linda was in Nepal to train Nepali journalists on how to identify, search, monitor, verify and report responsibly on false online information. Nepal Live Today spoke to her, and excerpts follow: 

What brings you to Nepal?

I am here as a Fulbright Specialist, which is a program of the U.S.government that sends educators around the world. I was invited to come here by a local NGO, Freedom Forum ‒ Nepal, and the Fulbright Commission in Nepal to train Nepali journalists in how to combat false information. I taught workshops in Kathmandu and Hetauda, a provincial capital about 87 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu. I have been in Nepal for almost three weeks. 

Fulbright Specialist Linda Austin teaches at the “Be a Verification Ninja” workshop for 20 journalists in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Sept. 5, 2022.

During your stay, what did you observe in terms of the environment and theme of the program?

I found that the hardworking Nepali journalists with whom I interacted were very interested in improving their skills, engaged in the training, and grateful for the opportunity to learn more. They told me that they see false information online on a daily basis. And I hope that they took away techniques and tools that they can use to help verify the information before reporting it.

Journalists (from left) Bhanubhakta Acharya, Shyam Lal (Ganesh) Dulal, and Pratiksha Neupane apply their new skills at the “Be a Verification Ninja” workshop in Hetauda, Nepal, on Sept. 9, 2022. Sixteen journalists attended the training, including some who traveled up to two hours.

In the course of the training, how many journalists did you interact with? And what is your impression of Nepali journalism?

There were 36 in the training. I also met with other journalists at different media houses. I was very impressed by their commitment to serving the public and their interest in getting better at their craft. 

What influences do misinformation, disinformation and malformation have in people’s lives? 

The bedrock of any democracy is that citizens have complete and accurate information with context so that they can make intelligent decisions. When people make decisions based on misinformation, disinformation and malinformation, they are likely to make bad decisions.

We saw that with COVID. People would read things online, like if they gargled with hot water, it would prevent them from getting COVID. Many people believed these things and ended up getting sick.

We’ve seen it in the political sphere where people vote for candidates who try to manipulate their emotions through false information. That can cause them to make disastrous choices in terms of their leadership.

SOURCE: U.S. State Department

So, I continue to hope and pray that through the efforts of journalists and through citizens and through the tech companies’ and governments’ efforts that false information will be combated and people will make decisions supported by fact-based, accurate information with context. 

Do you believe that our democracy is threatened by these misleading campaigns? 

Absolutely. Globally, there are malicious agents out there‒governments, political parties and individuals‒ that do not wish democracy to thrive. These people are purposefully distributing disinformation online to destroy democracy. Journalists around the world have to fight back to help people make informed choices based on facts, not the deceitful information that these agents of disinformation are distributing. 

How can journalists fight false information? 

The thing that separates journalism from other types of media is that we have a discipline of verification. We have to be absolutely vigilant about checking information before we report it. We have to be clear to people about what our process is so that people understand that we are not just including anything in our reports and that we apply a rigorous test of accuracy before we provide them that information. 

How can citizens fight false information?

One important thing you can do is to be aware of how a piece of information makes you feel. Agents of disinformation know you’re more likely to remember or share content if it stirs your emotions. So, if a claim online makes you want to scream, cry or buy, take a breath before sharing. Also, recent research found that people were less susceptible to false information if they had watched this video about emotional manipulation and these videos about other techniques that spreaders of disinformation use.

What has been the most satisfying moment for you during your visit to Nepal? 

The most satisfying moment was when we got to the end of the workshops and the journalists were really happy. They had mastered new skills, and they were going back to their newsrooms and planning to teach other journalists how to apply these tools and techniques. So, that for me made the whole trip worthwhile, and I wish them much success.