It’s an election year, and disinformation is in the news once again. 

The year started off with influence campaigns focused on both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries – including robocalls featuring an AI-generated “audio deepfake” simulating President Biden’s voice. The goals were familiar: to smear an opponent for political gain, damage trust in our election system, and suppress voter participation. Disinformation campaigns like these are nothing new, but new tools have made it easier than ever to produce and distribute deceptive content.

Unfortunately, these escalating threats to our democracy come at a time when social media platforms have scaled back their content moderation programs, and aggressive legal and legislative pressure from politicians has put a chill on counter-disinformation research and coordination

This moment calls for innovative approaches to tackling false information, and PEN America is ready to support journalists, policy makers, and communities across the country. We’re excited to share our plans for the Disinformation and Community Engagement program and invite you to get involved. 


How we think about disinformation

PEN America is an organization dedicated to defending free expression, but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate disinformation. 

Disinformation – defined as false information intended to deceive – interferes with people’s ability to make accurate and informed decisions, undermining a key precept of democracy. It heightens conflict, makes compromise more difficult, and draws our attention away from the most urgent challenges that we face as a nation. What’s more, the proliferation of deceptive information can undermine our marketplace of ideas by sowing distrust in our public figures and institutions.

In keeping with PEN’s free expression values, the Disinformation and Community Engagement program is focused on empowering the public. We’re especially interested in providing support at the local level, and that’s why we’re investing in community-level resilience against false and misleading information. Our areas of focus are three Sun Belt metropolises that are experiencing demographic and political changes and face growing national scrutiny: Miami, Dallas, and Phoenix. 

PEN America staff participate in a community “house meeting” in Dallas. Photo by Henry Hicks.


“It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment,” observes tech policy expert and democracy activist Yaël Eisenstat, “and I’m encouraged to see PEN America’s focus on community-level interventions to help build resilience to disinformation, especially in this very challenging election year.”

“PEN America is meeting people where they are,” Yaël continues, “and not just explaining the threats, but arming them with the tools needed to counter disinformation in their own communities. This is such important work with the potential to have real impact on the ground.”


Supporting anti-disinformation initiatives

As a key part of PEN America’s work countering disinformation, we’re supporting three outstanding organizations whose work we profiled in our 2023 report Building Resilience: Identifying Community Solutions to Targeted Disinformation. Through grant funding, we’re investing in proven – and emerging – nonpartisan initiatives for combating and offsetting the impact of false and deceptive information.

In Florida, Factchequeado will help Spanish-language journalists detect disinformation and verify content, while also producing accurate bilingual content for use in radio. Factchequeado will also develop a media literacy course that news consumers can complete through WhatsApp, a platform whose main users in the U.S. are Latinos. 

In the Dallas area, the Texas Tribune will provide credible, nonpartisan information about voting via the Voting Help Desk, a text messaging line to guide voters through the voting process and provide answers to common questions about eligibility, registering to vote, casting a ballot, and interpreting election results. By listening to the needs of voters, partnering with additional media outlets and institutions, and piloting the use of WhatsApp, Tribune staff will expand the audience for the Voting Help Desk and deepen its impact.

Maritza Félix, Founder and Director of Conecta Arizona. Photo by Kurt Sampsel.


When it comes to Phoenix, Conecta Arizona will provide timely, culturally sensitive fact checking content in Spanish and will develop a network of subject-matter experts to provide authoritative, trustworthy information to meet the needs of mixed-status families, individuals with health care questions, and voters. 

While these organizations are working on the initiatives and products PEN America is funding, we’ll surface learnings and resources from these grant-funded initiatives for broader adoption by other organizations and individuals doing counter-disinformation work. 


Providing resilience trainings and resources

In a series of trainings for an audience of community leaders, local journalists, and everyday news consumers, we’ll share best practices and resources for boosting community resilience against disinformation. 

Instead of sharing the familiar “media literacy 101” content, the trainings will go deep into topics including techniques for media monitoring, best practices for building relationships between community members and local journalists, and lessons learned from professional fact checkers. Expert guest speakers from journalism, academia, and community organizations will share strategies and resources for navigating the information environment. A central focus is to bring together experts and trusted messengers in conversation.

While the trainings are focused on audiences in Florida, Texas, and Arizona and will be “invitation only” to help ensure discretion and local specificity, we’ll be sharing many of the resources and best practices that we cover with the general public on our website. 


Empowering trusted messengers

At a time when people trust friends and family more than the media, interpersonal connections can go a long way to spreading fact-based information in our communities. We have a plan for leveraging this trust in 2024.

PEN America staff facilitate a community listening session in Phoenix. Photo by Henry Hicks.


We’ve all had this experience: you’re talking to a friend, family member, neighbor, or coworker, and they share information that you know is not quite right. What do you do? Do you say something, or do you let it pass? If you say something, how can you avoid offending the person or making them defensive?

Using principles of relational organizing and grassroots engagement, we’ll be developing a network of people committed to sharing factual information and ready to navigate sensitive – but important – conversations with friends and family. The goal is to empower these messengers to engage in difficult conversations and to promote access to alternative perspectives that people otherwise wouldn’t get exposed to.

PEN America’s piloting of this type of relational organizing builds on its successes in other contexts, and we believe it will yield valuable learnings about what works – and what doesn’t.


Get involved

Disinformation is an “everybody” problem, so we invite you to get involved in this work no matter who you are and regardless of whether or not you live in the three states where this work is focused. 


In the meantime, check your voter registration status and make a voting plan! And, if you’re a journalist, be sure to check out Facts Forward, PEN America’s new guide to help journalists combat disinformation.