Hanson Hosein blog header

We often refer to the past year as the “year of the infodemic.” This has been an era in which disinformation and other narratives have grown, spread, and merged, posing threats to businesses, individuals, and other elements of our society at a particularly high rate.

On January 27, in the first Zignal Labs Virtual Town Hall of 2021, we hosted a panel of expert guests to talk about how businesses can protect themselves from disinformation and other narrative-borne threats. One of our guests was Hanson Hosein, founder of media production and communications strategy firm HRH Media Group, Co-Founder of the Communication Leadership graduate program at the University of Washington, and an award-winning former journalist for NBC News and MSNBC. In our Town Hall, he discussed the challenges and opportunities businesses face as they navigate the current narrative-borne threat landscape.

Keep reading for five insights Hanson shared with our audience about the infodemic, countering disinformation, and more.

Watch the recorded Town Hall here.

Zignal logo for line break

1. It’s Possible the Infodemic Has Peaked. But It’s Far From Over.

The conversation kicked off with moderator Jennifer Granston, Chief Customer Officer and Head of Insights at Zignal, posing a key question: Was 2020 a fluke, or is the infodemic here to stay?

Hanson’s answer started with a concrete statement: “It’s not a fluke.” The conditions he identifies as having laid the groundwork for the infodemic – fear, anxiety, people spending more time online, all stemming largely from the pandemic – haven’t gone away. The bigger question is: “Is this the high-water mark…or is this going to be our next normal?”

“As much as these companies are going to try to continue to play whack-a-mole by de-platforming, I think we’re going to continue to see this infodemic.”
Hanson Hosein, HRH Media Group & the University of Washington

The answer may depend upon the actions of the technology companies and other organizations that have recently stepped into the fray with efforts to suppress sources of dangerous mis- and disinformation narratives that spread online. But even here, the efficacy of these efforts is far from assured. As long as people have fragmented information sources and the ability to express their fears and anxieties online, “there’s the chance that we have alternative realities being shared out there. So as much as these companies are going to try to continue to play whack-a-mole by de-platforming, I think we’re going to continue to see this infodemic.”

Zignal logo for line break

2. Strategic Silence May No Longer Work as a Response to Narrative-Borne Threats

One of the biggest changes we’re seeing in how businesses respond to narrative-borne threats is that strategic silence – the idea that the most effective response to a threatening narrative is sometimes no response at all – may have outlived its utility.

“The traditional approach in communications is to ignore something because you would give it more credence,” Hanson says. “But I don’t think you can afford to do that anymore.”

The good news is that, even if stepping into the fray feels risky, it can go a long way toward enabling businesses to take control of the narrative – if their execution is right. “If you can get it right, people will be grateful to you for actually setting the story right and putting yourself in their trusted position,” Hanson says.

“People will be grateful to you for actually setting the story right and putting yourself in their trusted position.”
Hanson Hosein, HRH Media Group & the University of Washington

But, he continues, a business’s response “can’t be a one-off. It has to be constant and it has to align right to your values and everything you put out there.”

Zignal logo for line break

3. When Combating Mis- and Disinformation, Trust Is Key

Our speakers identified a lack of trust as one of the major factors at the heart of the infodemic. “We’re in a trust crisis right now,” Hanson says. “People feel like they’ve got no power, they don’t trust elites, and they feel they have no control of the system. And so they’re looking for places where they can connect to others who have the same beliefs.”


The question is how businesses and other organizations can win the public trust necessary to successfully push back against false and misleading narratives. Hanson wonders if they have an active role to play here: “Can these brands and organizations put out counter-narratives that not only support the company and their people on the front lines, but also begin to take back and rebuild that trust?”

Zignal logo for line break

4. The Infodemic Is an Opportunity to Demonstrate Leadership

The lack of trust that has fueled the infodemic has also left a leadership void – and businesses have an opportunity to fill it. “The opportunity here for organizations, as we’re dealing with these narrative-borne threats, is actually to step into the breach and provide credible leadership,” Hanson says. “There’s the chance for somebody who has brought credibility to the table to be able to start to turn momentum around a conversation.”

“There’s the chance for somebody who has brought credibility to the table to be able to start to turn momentum around a conversation.”
Hanson Hosein, HRH Media Group & the University of Washington

How can businesses accomplish this? To start, Hanson recommends taking a page from the world of journalism: “Journalists right now in the US are not seen as very credible institutions, so the changes happening in journalism are around transparency: demonstrating the work they’re doing, and even their own biases, so that people will say, ‘I don’t totally agree with you, but I do find your work credible.’ I think organizations and their leadership have to adopt some of those same techniques, and say, ‘Here are our values, here’s how we do business and here’s how we’re going to stand on this.’ And even if you don’t agree with them, you can still trust the information coming from them because they have demonstrated that credibility.”

Zignal logo for line break

5. The Ramifications of Online Deplatforming Are an Open Question

As tech companies ramp up their efforts to deplatform users who have violated their terms of service, Hanson notes that “the backlash has already begun.” This backlash has centered largely around the issue of free speech, and the ways social media has made that issue more complex.

“These are private companies that have the right to block whoever they want based on their terms of agreement,” Hanson says. “However, we’ve become so reliant on these platforms that they have become the de facto public square for us. If companies are going to start cutting out extreme voices under public pressure, do we have a say in that?”

He continues, “This is a big issue, and we’re going to start seeing some movement, especially in Congress, around thinking about if these companies are responsible in a different way.”

For more insights from Hanson and our other panelists, watch the webinar recording, and read our collection of key insights from our other guest speaker, Allyson Hugley.