New insights in the battle against misinformation | #mediadev - media development insights and analysis | DW | 10.07.2020
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Coronavirus

New insights in the battle against misinformation

Philip Mai and Anatoliy Gruzd are at the forefront of global research on social media. On #mediadev, they discuss their research on misinformation, their new portal, COVID19MisInfo.org, and the future of fact-checking.

By studying COVID-19 misinformation, we help to better understand how misinformation about the virus spreads

"By studying COVID-19 misinformation, we help to better understand how misinformation about the virus spreads"

In March 2020, Philip Mai and Anatoliy Gruzd launched COVID19MisInfo.org to respond to the coronavirus pandemic unfolding in Canada and around the world. In the following email interview, they discuss their research on misinformation, the future of fact-checking and why this pandemic could have lasting effects on media literacy and the right to freedom of expression.  

#mediadev: Looking at the example of COVID-19, how does your research impact our understanding of misinformation on social media? 

Philip Mai/Anatoliy Gruzd: If we allow COVID-19 misinformation to spread unchallenged, it will undermine the work of public health officials and put the public and medical workers at risk of contracting or spreading the infection. In addition to the medical danger, COVID-19 misinformation can also be used to facilitate financial scams, identity theft and other data breaches. Misinformation about the virus can contribute to people's fears and may cause them to act irrationally or even lead to instances of microaggressions.  

By studying COVID-19 misinformation, we help the public, policy makers and social media platforms to better understand how misinformation about the virus spreads on social media, what types of false claims are likely to go viral, who is doing the spreading and who is being impacted. If we are successful, we will have played our part in helping to inoculate the public against COVID-19 misinformation and mitigate its spread during this pandemic and any future ones. The results will also be applicable to other forms of misinformation circulating on social media.  

What are the overarching goals of your research on misinformation and how are you able to access the necessary data?  

Our overarching goal with the COVID19MisInfo.org portal and the larger research project is to put a spotlight on COVID-19-related misinformation and to provide people with timely and actionable information that they can use to protect themselves and their communities.  

Symbolbild Verifizierung (Imago Images/Panthermedia/O. Le Moal)

"The COVID-19 infodemic may get worse"

As an interdisciplinary research lab, we were able to assemble a very robust and diverse team consisting of a computational social scientist, a communications professional and a former journalist as well as graduate and undergraduate students from various disciplines, including management studies, computer science and psychology. This allowed us to start gathering research data from a multitude of sources very quickly and build a new, public-facing COVID19MisInfo.org portal in just a few days.  

We employ a variety of computational social science methods that combine approaches such as social network analysis and text analysis with big data analytics methods. For this research, we are using publicly available data provided by social media platforms and retrieved using either data collection tools built in-house, such as Netlytic to work with Twitter and YouTube data and Communalytic to work with Reddit data, or third party applications such as CrowdTangle to analyze publicly available data from Facebook and Instagram. Analyzing data across multiple platforms allows us to study the spread and impact of COVID-19-related misinformation across diverse communities and platforms. 

What are the major false narratives that your research has uncovered surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic? 

From examining over 2,300 fact-checked claims about COVID-19 shared since the beginning of this year, we have observed the following common themes of misinformation: 

  • Promoting fake tests and cures: This includes unlicensed COVID-19 tests, home remedies and natural medicines as a "cure" or a "preventive" measure to contracting the virus. We've found everything from drinking lots of water, to taking cocaine, to drinking bleach. 
  • Speculation on the origin: This is straight out of conspiracy thrillers and it panders to nationalism or xenophobia, claiming that the virus is the work of government labs. This theme includes claims that either Chinese, Canadian or US scientists created the coronavirus in a laboratory or that 5G technology somehow caused the sickness. 
  • Diminishment of the virus severity: This consists of unproven information about the virus, for example, about how warmer weather would kill the virus, an unproven claim which was propagated by numerous sources including US President Donald Trump. 
  • Race-baiting and racist remarks: False accusations that people of certain faiths or ethnicity intentionally are spreading the virus. These include the false claim that Muslims in India are licking plates and spoons to spread coronavirus or that Chinatowns all over the world are a petri dish for the virus. 
  • Scamming people: Scammers are setting up websites posing as government entities and using social media to drive unsuspecting people to these websites in the hope of stealing people's personal information or infecting their devices such as smartphones or computers. 
  • Maligning brands: These are false claims related to businesses, such as the claim that Corona beer sales have dropped sharply due to fear about the coronavirus, or that supposedly the new coronavirus is transmitted through Coca Cola. 
  • Rumours about celebrities: There are also various false reports about celebrities, elected officials or other influential people contracting the virus or even passing away because of it, such as a recent claim about the death of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

While COVID19MisInfo.org is based in Canada, are there any insights that translate to other contexts equally heavily influenced by social media, such as Eastern European, Latin American or Asian? 

Since misinformation is not constrained by any country's geographical boundaries, our project aggregates and studies cases of COVID-19 misinformation that are circulating not just in Canada but in other countries as well.  

Under certain circumstances, public health agencies may be contributing to the infodemic, so there is a need for more coordination between agencies across and within each country to agree on common terms of reference. For example, what is the meaning of the term "social distancing" versus "physical distancing", or what is a "confirmed case"? Public health agencies should also emphasize that this is a new virus and that recommendations will change over time with more data. 

To reduce the number of old stories that get recirculated as new, media organizations and publishers should implement "old article" features to limit the spread of outdated information that can be weaponized by misinformed/bad actors. 

Alt News Indien Fake News

An man browses through the Twitter account of Alt News, an Indian fact-checking website

Because new websites are an important vector for the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, domain registrars should halt all automated registration of domains with words related to the COVID-19 health crisis. 

Authorities should develop and run Public Service Announcements (PSA) about the infodemic and educate people on how to develop and practice "digital hygiene," similar to how we educate the public on how to develop routines and practices for personal care.  

Finally, how do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic will change fact-checking in the long term? 

Long term, our hope is that the public will become more knowledgeable about disinformation and misinformation tactics and that people will be taught the skills to consume information with a more critical eye. In the short term, the COVID-19 infodemic may get worse, amplified by racial tension and political instability around the world. In this context, we expect that there will be an even greater need for professional fact-checkers. 

We also expect to see more governments around the world enacting new laws to curb or even criminalize COVID-19 misinformation. This is where the real danger lies. We need to be vigilant as citizens to ensure that when we come out on the other side of this pandemic, we retain the rights and civil liberties that we had coming into it. Any tech or legal measures that we adopt during this period must be limited in scale, scope and reach. If not, many of the conditions that allow us to face the current crisis will not be available to us when we face the next pandemic. 

Philip Mai is senior researcher and director of Business and Communications at the Ryerson University Social Media Lab in Toronto, Canada. Anatoliy Gruzd is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Media Data Stewardship at Ryerson University.

Email interview: Julia Sittmann

This article is part of the campaign 'Together for reliable information' organized by Free Press Unlimited. Read more about DW Akademie joining the campaign here.

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