The impact of COVID on how we understand the potential of misinformation was a central theme of Government Events’ Tackling Misinformation 2021 conference this year. An exhausted adage perhaps, but the old saying that ‘a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots’ from Mark Twain has never felt so lethal as it has over these past 12 months.
This timely and relevant event was chaired by Max Beverton Palmer from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Here is a summary of the 5 key takeaways from Tackling Misinformation 2021:
1) Misinformation is Cyber
On the spectrum of misinformation, alongside usual suspects like nation-state attempts to sow discord, we have the likes of phishing emails.
It’s important that we start seeing scams and cheapshots as forms of misinformation, no different from a meme that overstates the threat or opportunity of a trend.
I’d add here that situational phishing is a key player here. Government domains are a lucrative weapon for phishers. COVID health warnings and vaccination communications sent to your email or SMS inbox are a delicious new exploit.
Public health is now a cybersecurity issue, and by extension, so’s misinformation.
2) Fake News is true (sort of)
Long-time researcher & fact-checker Peter Cunliffe-Jones made the important point that there’s always a kernel of truth contained in any piece of misinformation. He has modeled 11 different ways that truth is distorted (like Conflation, Satire, Impersonation, Unchallenged Truth amongst others).
A big takeaway is that since the explosion in Fake News around 2016, it’s important to study the ‘medium’ as much as the ‘message’ to tackle threats to peace. The sources we trust the most – their look and feel – are where to start.
3) Misinformation is what we DON’T know
When you think of misinformation, you think of accessible things like Twitter, Facebook, TV broadcasts, and advertising.
However, Dr. Justin Varney remarked that what’s contained in community Whatsapp groups, memes & messenger chats in private is where misinformation proliferates and works its real black magic.
If social mobilization is key to fighting misinformation head-on, we need to realize that it’s those hard-to-reach parts of the internet where it’s most effective.
And when, thanks to COVID, ‘it’s not just an inconvenience, it can be deadly’ it’s an urgent challenge we need to address seriously.
Stephen Kinsella from Clean Up The Internet added that it’s a ‘multi-channel operation’; closed groups in social networks make true social listening harder. This is before you even begin to explore Parler, Discord, BitChute, and the new chat sites constantly popping up.
4) Vulnerable groups are worst affected
It’s a distressing constant of most social problems that the poorest and least equipped are affected the worst.
Whether from Dr. Varney’s direct experience in deprived areas of Birmingham (and the impact of a fake NHS worker’s audio file shared on WhatsApp) to overt extremism, the victims tend to be the same.
Digital exclusion is a piece of the puzzle. This isn’t defined as a lack of electronic devices – everyone has a smartphone – but the precise amount of roaming data you have (and what you pay) affects the level of smart services you can access. Media literacy in a rapidly changing digital ecosystem with a seemingly infinite amount of voices and content types is important to challenge misinformation, not just in Europe but also crucially in the developing world.
The more mobile data you have, the more information and sources at your disposal to challenge misinformation and diversify the news and content consumed. Although this advantage isn’t ultimate, as we know that a deluge of alternative sources can produce similar effects of so-called information pollution.
5) ‘Pre-bunking’ beats de-bunking
Because COVID has proved so many predictions wrong, it’s harder than ever to say something’s true.
One way to fight misinformation is to inoculate yourself from the problem in the first place.
Called ‘pre-bunking’ by Dr. Sander Van Der Linden, you ‘inject’ yourself with a bit of falsehood to help create mental antibodies to work against lies. This has been trialed with Go Viral!, a gamified effort to innoculate citizens against misinformation, that challenges users to download a special app to create the most viral lie they can.
By gamifying social change interventions, you can simulate a real social media post or meme technique used so commonly to propagate misinformation or disinformation.
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