15 February 2024

The most likely space for disinformation, meaning false information that is spread deliberatively, to gain traction is in an information vacuum. If people have questions they can’t find reliable answers to, they begin relying on hearsay and rumours, or whatever half-truths or flat-out lies they can get their hands on. 

Most people don’t go directly to government websites to stay informed. This is why ultimately, ensuring that residents have access to the information they need requires a national strategy which involves working with civil society, the media and others.

Nonetheless, there are cases where direct communications between governments and citizens play a big role, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. And there should always be a reliable place to confirm what they have read elsewhere, or find answers to questions not addressed by other sources. Getting direct communications between the government and the public right is crucial, at all levels from local to national and beyond. 

In this article, we look at the best practices for government communications as a preventative approach to disinformation. We examine the importance of transparency, tailoring information to different audiences – and why it’s imperative to keep official communications distinct from party political messaging. 

Offer a place where accurate information is easy to access

Transparency is both a key democratic principle, and a major tool in the fight against disinformationPeople must know where they can go to verify information. Media literacy skills are essential here. But apart from providing support to media literacy campaigns and training, governments can do a lot by being a source of quality information.

Governments typically have vast troves of high-quality, taxpayer-funded information – but they don’t always share it. And even when they do, they are not always good at making it accessible. 

A well-managed, accessible and user-friendly website gives both the broader public a place to verify information. It also gives journalists and researchers the resources they need to ensure that their work is well-informed and up-to-date. Information should be easy to find, and websites properly optimised to ensure that they show up in searches. 

Governments that have this information in a readily accessible format will be better prepared in case there is a need to organise a rapid response to a wave of disinformation. They can point to a resource that was published before the disinformation. They avoid being reactive and do not need to start producing new materials as the situation develops. 

On a day-to-day basis, there is unlikely to be a huge amount of web traffic to these sites. Most people will continue to get information from their regular sources, like news sites and social media. Yet ensuring that the option is there when it is needed is crucial.

Clearly distinguish and verify government communications

During the pandemic, many governments discovered that regular, clear, and transparent communication from government officials is critical to building public trust and counteracting false narratives.

Online, governments must ensure their websites have up-to-date security certificates and clear URL patterns for users to know they’re on the correct website. For example, official US government websites include a “Here’s how you know” explanation at the top of every page to fight clones. Over time, users begin to recognise this as a reliable way to be sure they’re on the right site and are not being phished.

While the public sector is not always known for investing in brand identities, a strong brand experience can help establish trust. 

Examples: The Unite against Covid-19 site from New Zealand and related social media pages created a strong brand for quality information. 

Transparency and traceability

Transparency regarding where information comes from is a cornerstone of academic studies, and some believe it could be key to increasing trust in journalism. Governments can lead the way here, ensuring that they are always transparent about where their information comes from. Wherever possible, they should make clear their sources, linking to studies cited, sharing the relevant data and if possible how the data has been collected. This includes being clear about uncertainties where they exist.

Example: The Welsh government explained in detail how its figures for vaccination coverage were calculated and even where differences in alternative approaches to calculating them come from. 

Translation and accessibility

Public communication should reflect the linguistic diversity of the addressed communities to have a chance of reaching them. During the pandemic, misinformation was especially widespread in minority communities

AI tools for translation have made big strides in recent years, and can be useful in low-resource environments. Nonetheless, human translators are still better equipped to get the tone right. A good translation is often not word-for-word – it can also incorporate cultural translation, adjusting the tone for a specific audience. 

“Easy-to-read” versions of communications can also help to reach audiences who have difficulties reading, or have only a limited grasp of the language. Video materials should contain subtitles and sign language. In some countries, such as Germany, there are legal requirements for accessibility in government communications. Inclusion Europe offers guidance on how to write easy-to-read texts in many languages.

Communication must be non-partisan

In their 2021 report on Public Communication, the OECD emphasises that the public has grown increasingly suspicious of “spin” in government messaging.  Increasingly, politicians and parties find themselves in non-stop campaign mode, with communications teams carefully controlling messaging to the electorate. 

It is crucial to establish spaces devoted to official communications that do not promote any particular politician, party, or government. Citizens need to be able to clearly identify these channels as non-partisan sources of information. While the public sector is not always known for investing in brand identities, a strong brand experience can help establish trust.

Example: the “Stay Home, Save Lives” campaign in the UK.

Accuracy is more important than speed

Finally, it is crucial that the information be consistent, and that contradictory messages don’t end up being sent out. This can be hard in the midst of an unfolding situation – where, for example, initial research suggests cloth face masks was sufficient, whereas later, many countries advised that only FP2-type masks are effective.

Generally speaking, accuracy should have priority over speed. However, there will inevitably be cases where information remains incomplete or uncertain, yet the threat of disinformation means sharing this unclear picture with the public. Again, in such cases, transparency about the provisional nature of the information being shared can help to create trust. If the situation is unclear or actively evolving, this should be clear in government publications. 

When public authorities anticipate disinformation, they can warn people ahead of time that they are likely to see false information in the coming days, detailing the form it is likely to take. This strategy, sometimes called pre-bunking, makes it more likely for citizens to recognise disinformation and to know where they can find accurate information.

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