Keeping up with current affairs is hard work these days – and the heavy subject matter is only half the story. In the past year we have witnessed earth-shattering political, social and economic upheaval, a sharp rise in the number of misleading news stories, and a general decline in public confidence in mainstream media outlets. Often, there is no guarantee that a claim we read or hear about online is true, false, or – most confusingly of all – somewhere in the murky in-between. Is this something we should accept as part of the ‘new normal’, or should we be taking this parallel pandemic of misinformation as seriously as the virus itself?
Journalists on the front line
As the problem of misinformation has grown increasingly evident, it has become a growing focus for media outlets and other institutions. Many national and international organisations have launched enhanced fact-checking initiatives, and the BBC has even created a specialist post for reporting on disinformation.
However, covering these stories brings unique challenges. Studies show that misinformation spreads exponentially through social media channels at an alarming rate, so reporters (who are often already under acute time pressure) must scramble to address false claims. Yet in order to debunk ‘fake news’ successfully (and to avoid spreading misinformation themselves), media outlets must ensure that they are producing reliable, evidence-based journalism in response. This has led to criticism that general media response to bogus claims is too slow, allowing the information to fester and spread – threatening public health and potentially corroding faith in the media in the process.
There is also the consideration that, by actively acknowledging and debunking misinformation, reporters are bringing these stories to the attention of a wider audience. It might never have crossed someone’s mind to link COVID-19 and 5G (a connection which is supported by no evidence), but reading a news article on the subject could trigger their interest in this and other conspiracy theories. The media’s role in the fight against misinformation is a delicate balancing act: reporters must tread the line between speed and accuracy, as well as doing a cost-to-benefit analysis of the potential attention they could attract.
Once misinformation is out in the open, many people look to the media as the first line of defence. In a recent interview with Sky News, the UK defence secretary Ben Wallace supported this, expressing concern that if governments were to increase their involvement in this domain it would set them on the “path to censorship”.
That said, some governments have introduced initiatives which aim to combat misinformation during the pandemic. Rather than creating a strict vetting process for published news (which might indeed be interpreted as a threat to democratic values), the UK government’s current focus is on providing readers with the tools to think critically about the news they consume. Partnering with the WHO, in May-June 2020 they launched a campaign to promote the use of trusted sources to access information on coronavirus. More recently they have encouraged the public to identify and report false or potentially misleading information. On its website the European Commission gives a long list of EU-funded projects which aim to improve digital literacy and fight the “infodemic”. But whilst the impetus behind such initiatives is admirable, one cannot help but wonder if more should be done to stop those public officials who are spreading misinformation in the first place.
The most obvious example of a politician disseminating false information in recent times is Mr Trump. His advice that people should take hydroxychloroquine (despite a lack of evidence regarding its efficacy against COVID-19), his completely unsubstantiated claims about election fraud and numerous other misleading claims pose a significant threat to public health and, more broadly, to the integrity of truth.
Yet Trump is not the only world leader to have prioritised political purpose over accuracy during the last year. In January, French president Macron remarked that he had read that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in people over 65. This appears to be a reference to an article published by the German newspaper Handelsblatt which claimed the vaccine only had an efficacy rate of only 8% in over-65s – despite there being no scientific evidence to support this. It would be naïve to assume that Macron’s comment was completely unrelated to the ongoing row between the EU and UK government over vaccine supplies.
To see such senior figures actively misrepresenting information is incredibly concerning. Given their huge followings, there is a strong argument that condemning this kind of conduct from those in the public eye could make a significant difference to the spread of misinformation. A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that, whilst only 20% of the misleading claims in their study sample were expressed by politicians and celebrities, they accounted for 69% of total social media engagement with misinformation. Targeting misleading claims endorsed by prominent public figures could therefore be a promising avenue to pursue.
Social media regulation: label, delete, suspend
This brings us back to the question of who is responsible for regulating these false narratives. Given the prominent role of social media in the spread, executives are under increasing pressure to take action. Hence why several organisations – including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – took the bold step of suspending Trump from their platforms after the Capitol riots on 6th January. Yet the matter has raised concerns among the international community over the threat this poses to freedom of speech. Even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, when defending his company’s decision to ban Trump permanently from the platform, admitted that it set a “dangerous” precedent.
Suspension is the most extreme form of regulation, preceded by the removal of deceptive posts. Youtube, Twitter and Facebook have started attaching warning labels to content, informing readers that it may contain false or misleading information. Yet whilst this strategy can be helpful, the overall efficacy is debateable. Those who are most susceptible to believing conspiracy theories often have little existing confidence in mainstream media and regulators, and it is unlikely that a warning label will alter the mindset of someone already entrenched in the conspiracy theory community.
The personal touch: breaking through to conspiracy theorists
The answer to countering the spread of misinformation among these groups might come from those who understand its psychology better than most: ex-members. At the start of the pandemic, Erin and Brian Lee Hitchens from Florida thought that coronavirus was a government “hoax” linked to 5G, or at least that it was no worse than the flu. They did not follow any health protocols and both ended up in intensive care with the virus. Brian survived; Erin died. After losing his wife, Brian posted a heartfelt message on Facebook outlining his experience and pleading with others not to make the same mistake. His story received huge international coverage.
Posts like Brian’s have the potential to be relatable to sceptics in a way that mainstream news stories and governmental interventions do not. Nevertheless, the issue of confirmation bias remains problematic. Those prone to conspiracy theory thinking tend to favour information that suits their preferred narrative, and the content they consume and share on social media platforms reflects this. Content which challenges this narrative is most often met with hostility and suspicion. Therefore, although a former conspiracy theorist’s testimony might carry more weight among their intended audience than conventional journalistic or government sources do, there is no guarantee of widespread success.
The need for critical analysis
Ultimately, the most effective tool against misinformation is probably the general public. Despite the efforts of social media regulators and journalists, there are always going to be some misleading claims which go unchecked. Government and NGO initiatives which offer practical advice on how to identify misinformation are probably among the most effective methods of limiting the spread of unsubstantiated claims.
We all have a responsibility to look critically at what we read and see, whether this be on social media or a mainstream news channel. Everyone is susceptible to misinformation to some degree and complacency when absorbing news is something we simply cannot afford.
After Covid: the future impact of misinformation
Misinformation during the pandemic is not just a public health issue; it has serious implications for the future of society. If we do not address the problem now, we risk losing the ability to distinguish fiction from objective fact – a phenomenon which some have termed ‘post-truth’. Political analysts are concerned about post-truth thinking as an emerging trend in global politics. Without a universally established version of the truth, governments will lose the ability to resolve conflict within democratic frameworks, potentially leading to outright conflict between and within countries. We are already seeing this in the United States and, to an extent, in the row between Europe and the UK over vaccine supplies.
Post-truth does not only affect international relations; it affects everyone at all levels of society. Loss of an established consensus of reality could lead to a continued downward spiral of decreasing faith in government institutions and mainstream media outlets. The physical impact of the virus is hugely concerning. But the threat from the parallel pandemic of misinformation – which is jeopardising our collective capability to agree on basic facts – should not be underestimated.