How To Inoculate Against An Infodemic

Fake news peddles false or misleading information with the aim of deceiving the public. Fake news is created by outlets which pretend to be legitimate media sites. The problem of fake news has increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic because interactions with articles from news sites has considerably increased. A study from the German Marshall Fund of the United States found interactions with fake news articles have increased by 242 percent between 2016 and 2020. Simultaneously, interactions with legitimate news outlets dropped to pre-COVID-19 levels.

At a Munich Security Conference in February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” The term infodemic is being used to describe the deluge of fake news articles mixing facts, rumours, and falsities about the pandemic. The danger of the infodemic is as dangerous as COVID-19, according to the WHO. This is because there are articles spreading misinformation about fake remedies, such as eating garlic or drinking warm water. There are also articles on conspiracy theories alleging China manufactured the virus, accusing Bill Gates of causing the pandemic to profit from selling the vaccine or attributing 5G cell towers to the spread of the virus. The infodemic has caused an increase in xenophobic attacks against people of Asian descent online and in the real world. There is also an increasing danger of confusing and panicking the population. If people no longer know which articles to trust, they become vulnerable to cybercrime and manipulation.

The national responses to the infodemic have varied between countries. Asian countries have not hesitated to enforce criminal prosecutions in the zeal to crackdown on those who produce and circulate misinformation. For instance, China has not only prosecuted citizens who were guilty of promulgating the infodemic, but also broadcasted these criminal prosecutions as a means of deterring other fake news creators and disseminators. The Singaporean government has gone further to produce news sources that correct rumours and falsehoods.

There has not been a use of criminal prosecutions in liberal democracies. Instead, fact-checking services have been made available to the public, such as the Rumour Detector in Quebec. The WHO has assembled a team of mythbusters who are collaborating with social media and technology companies such as Facebook, Pinterest, Google, Twitter, and TikTok amongst others to counter the spread of misinformation. The response by these institutions has been to filter out misleading information about COVID-19. For instance, Google has removed misinformation from YouTube, Google Maps, and its advertisements, while Twitter is helping people find reliable information on its Explore page and protecting public conversation by partnering with credible organizations.

Despite it only taking a few clicks to identify misinformation and the relative ease of obtaining credible information from sites like the WHO mythbusters online platform, the infodemic has persisted. First, because liberal democratic countries cannot sacrifice the freedom of speech and freedom of the media and use criminal prosecutions to silence those who produce and disseminate misinformation.

Second, the infodemic continues because strategies aiming to fact-check and enhance rational debate about COVID-19 can cause adverse effects. A study analyzing the removal of misinformation about the Zika virus did not decrease misconceptions on the disease. Instead, it reduced people’s confidence in the WHO’s ability to relay accurate information about the virus.

One explanation is people prefer simplistic explanations over deciphering complex scientific information during tumultuous times. Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at the University of Dartmouth and the study’s co-author, argues when there is a novel threat like a pandemic, there is a worry about how to protect oneself. Therefore, people cling to simple and intuitive explanations. This is because such explanations are more psychologically comforting than the reality of emerging diseases which due to their messiness and chaos are difficult to understand. The study conveys strategies which aim to bust myths in public health campaigns should not be relied upon. Instead, simple messages about best practices on preventing the contraction of a disease work better.

Finally, the efforts to curb the infodemic have been unsuccessful because social media and technology companies continue to be the greatest source of COVID-19 misinformation. The Journalism and the Pandemic Project, which surveyed journalists covering COVID-19, found that Facebook and Facebook-owned social media applications like Instagram and WhatsApp are the largest disseminators of misinformation. A study from Avaaz, a campaign group, found while Facebook promised a crackdown on misinformation, its algorithm has instead routed traffic to sites which share fake news.

A multipronged approach is needed to address the infodemic. This is crucial because even one piece of COVID-19 misinformation can lead to 800 deaths as found by the Bangladesh’s International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Also, the dissemination of misinformation threatens the health of the population because it can lead people to doubt the existence of the disease, underestimate the threat, or fall prey to fake preventions and cures.

First, governments should encourage trust in professional journalism instead of focusing on myth busting. This is to counter the decline in public trust of traditional journalism and news media outlets. A Gallup poll found public trust and confidence in mass media reporting of the news being accurate and fair dropped from 53 percent to 32 percent from 1997 to 2016 in the United States. Trust in legitimate news outlets can be encouraged by promoting news literacy so readers can spot fake news. When an article is suspected of containing misinformation, a pop-up dialog can be used to remind the reader of the critical thinking skills they should employ when reading the article. The pop-up should also encourage people to ask the person who shared the misinformed articles to remove the post. Finally, the pop-up should inform the reader about using a variety of news sources including links to legitimate sites.

Second, the creation of fake news should be targeted at its source. One method would be to remove the financial incentive that makes fake news articles profitable. Fake news articles work by using eye catching headlines that attract clicks. The more clicks an article receives, the more money the fake news creator makes. Google and Facebook announced policies to limit advertisements on fake news articles. However, fake news creators adapted to the policy changes. Social media and technology companies need to form a dedicated team to counter the creation of fake news. When fake news creators adapt to a company’s policy changes, the company needs to modify its policy. The companies need to be as relentless and aggressive as the fake news producers. Another method of disincentivizing the creation of fake news is for liberal democratic countries to criminalize profiting from the creation and dissemination of fake news. This would uphold the freedom of speech and the media, as people can still freely write what they want but they cannot profit from it.

Finally, research into the creation and dissemination of fake news should be encouraged because it can assist in neutralizing it. Adam Berinsky, a professor of political science and director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s political experiments research lab, argues it is equally important to uncover why existing programs targeting fake news fail as it is to discover which programs may work.

Companies should share their database of user activity as it allows researchers to monitor how misinformation was disseminated. This has been achieved somewhat with the Social Science One initiative as Facebook has allowed academics access to their 2017-19 database. However, this is a limited dataset as it only comes from one company and from a select period of time. Other companies need to be involved, especially Google due to it is behemoth status in the advertising arena wherein fake news creators thrive.

Angie Singh
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