What is spreading across the globe, can be passed on unwittingly from one person to countless others, is potentially deadly, yet can be stopped if everyone takes the right steps?
Misinformation. The subject of the new episode of World Vs Virus.
Heard of the miracle cure for COVID that the mainstream media doesn’t want you to know about? Or that the pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ – deliberately created to make someone a fortune or to subjugate the masses? Then you’ve come up against the virus of misinformation that has spread around the world as fast as the coronavirus itself.
In a world where social media is increasingly where most of us get so much of our information, and where we value freedom of speech as a cornerstone of democracy, what can be done to combat dangerous misinformation?
“When COVID-19 emerged, it was clear from the outset this was not just a public health emergency, but a communications crisis as well,” says Melissa Fleming, who leads global communications for the United Nations.
With a huge public demand for information about the pandemic and the rapid spread of false information, the ‘infodemic’ is putting lives at risk, so Fleming is heading a campaign to help true information surface out of the deluge of rumours and lies.
She has launched ‘Verified‘ – where people can sign up for daily emails on the latest COVID news that comes from reliable sources: “science-based information” that might otherwise be buried on “page 125 of a PDF” presented “in formats that are optimized for sharing on social media.”
“It is front-and-centre in your social media feeds. So it can compete with the slick misinformation content,” Fleming says.
The UN is also encouraging us to stop rushing to re-post potentially dubious content, promoting the hashtag #PledgetoPause.
During the #COVID19 pandemic, the wrong information can be deadly.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) October 20, 2020
“We’re trying to create this new social norm called ‘pause – take care before you share’,” Fleming says. “We’re equipping people, through this new social norm, with a bit of ‘information scepticism’.”
The UN is also encouraging social media influencers to help spread real news about the pandemic.
“So far, we’ve recruited 110,000 information volunteers, and we equip these information volunteers with the kind of knowledge about how misinformation spreads and ask them to serve as kind of ‘digital first-responders’ in those spaces where misinformation travels,” Fleming says.
Also on the podcast, journalist and entrepreneur Mark Little sets out potential solutions to the infodemic.
He’s worked for Twitter and founded Storyful, a social media news agency that had fact-checking at its heart. He has now launched a new company called Kinzen which aims to get the best out of artificial intelligence and human editors to combat online rumours and lies.
“I’ve started to see the spread of misinformation as a global health crisis,” Little tells World Vs Virus. ” Misinformation is that serious a threat to our society.
“If people cannot trust information about the critical challenges in our world today, whether it’s coronavirus or climate change, then we cannot make reasoned decisions as a democracy.”
Little says we should be wary of any move towards censorship that would curb freedom of speech but, instead, we need to equip people with the tools to see fact from fiction.
“Misinformation is happening within our friends and families. So we have to find strategies to, first of all, recognize it. And, secondly, as active citizens, just like we wear masks to protect others, we need to be the good citizen, the active vector fighting back in our daily lives.”
As well as promoting ‘media literacy’, Little says social media platforms have to ensure they are working for the good of democracy, rather than against it. He applauds Twitter for labelling some misleading tweets, but says more is needed and calls for a “root-and-branch audit of the way that information is distributed on all the different platforms”.
“There is no easy solution. The business model of the platforms, unfortunately, encourages the spread of this kind of outrageous information. But that has to change.
“I hope technology platforms realize that they need radical change to get back to the original roots and democratic promise of these platforms they created.”