A week ago, my 13 year old daughter came downstairs from her bedroom while we were on lockdown. She had some news for me. My son had a cough, so, like many, we had been self-isolating. “Daddy,” she said. “People on TikTok are saying they got a text telling them they are going to get a police fine put on their next phone bill. Apparently it’s because the government knows from their phone signal that they’ve been outside twice in one day.” “Yes Daddy,” my 10 year old son countered. “One of my friends’ dad has had that text too.”
This was the first piece of fake news around the coronavirus that I saw pick up mainstream awareness, and everyone telling me about it was certain that it was real. Like the Coronavirus, this misinformation has spread fast. Through the connected. And now through the mainstream, it has taken hold.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced a social media ‘infodemic’ around the Coronavirus. A pandemic of disinformation and fake news is spreading online, bringing about real world harm. As billions across the world get used to life on lockdown, we have turned to social media, messaging apps, video calling to bring us closer together, and online news sources to keep us informed. But misinformation poses a serious problem to public health, which is why WHO is playing a vital role right now in slowing the spread of COVID-19 online.
When COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency, WHO launched ‘EPI-WIN: the WHO information network for epidemics.’ The organisation is working directly with all the major social networks globally to ensure users have access to correct and authoritative information. “What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people will do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact,” said WHO’s ‘architect’ of its infodemic fightback efforts to medical journal The Lancet.
Fake news spreads virally. It brings about instability and chaos, sometimes through rumour, but sometimes through sinister agents, driven by making money through scams, and by undermining governments with disinformation. This is a sheer tidal wave, and it is only just beginning.
COVID-19 is first and foremost a healthcare crisis and a tragedy, the scale of which we have never seen before. But the issue of fake news is growing rapidly and the fightback is starting to take shape. In recent days we have seen an array of initiatives launched to help fight the war on fake news and the coronavirus:
- Global news agency AFP has launched a Coronavirus verification hub.
- Ryerson Social Media Lab has launched rapid response project COVID19MISINFO.org.
- The European External Action Service has launched a special report on disinformation on the Coronavirus.
- Most recently, this week a UK coalition of parliamentarians, academics and anti-disinformation campaigners has launched a fact-checking service for Coronavirus called Infotagion.
- And of course WHO’s EPI-WIN initiative.
COVID-19 has brought sudden and extreme change to our lives. But it is playing a vital role in spreading critical information globally, in bringing us closer together, and in rallying support for important causes in healthcare and in society as a whole.
Social media can be one of the most powerful forces for good in society today. When we’re in isolation, it brings us together. It gives us access to information we’ve never had before, especially in times like this during a pandemic. We’ve literally never had so much power online. And we must use this power for good.
Fact-checking websites are only part of the solution. We also need to change our relationships with social media if we are to play our part in beating the Coronavirus. This is about how to spot fake news, what to do when you see it, and how to create a more balanced social media set-up for yourself.
In November last year I delivered a TED talk at TEDxBristol on the future of social media, and the vital things we must do to make it a powerful force for good in society today.
I had spent a good part of 2019 researching how information spreads online, and why. Now here we are, with the Coronavirus as the new and devastating catalyst, and I believe my findings can help us to better navigate through what lies ahead. Here are some of the key points from what I discovered.
What we share online is powerful. There are 7.8 billion people in the world, and two thirds of the them are active on social media. It is the single biggest media platform in the world today, but what many of us don’t realise is just how much harmful content circulates on social networks and the damage it can do.
On Facebook alone, every hour of every day, one million Facebook profiles, deemed so harmful that we should not see them, are deleted altogether off the face of the internet. According to official statistics published by Facebook, in the first nine months of 2019, the social network deleted 5.4 billion fake profiles, 15 million hate speech posts, 18 million pieces of terrorist propaganda, and 5.9 billion pieces of spam. When we look back on 2020, how many Coronavirus posts will have been dealt with a similar way?
There are three things we can all do to make social media a safer place. The first is all about how to spot those who share fake news.
1. How to spot a troll or a bot
Fake news often comes from trolls, and is shared by bots. They often have fake social media profiles and false-looking usernames. Check their follower and following numbers. They will be in the multiples that a real person couldn’t normally manage – think in the thousands. And their profile pictures aren’t usually of a real person. If you see a troll or a bot sharing fake news, report it. Staff at the social neworks will review every report and may delete it.
2. Put on your fake filter
Having pored through most of the data on what spreads online and why, I urge you to look at social media this way: one in three things you see online is likely some how fake. Because that doctored clip, that filtered image, or that made up fact, absolutely could have been put there by someone with an agenda. So don’t believe everything you see, and adopt a social media filter of one in three.
3. Power of positivity
The algorithm is something that powers all the social networks. It is software that was created by the social networks to mix up what we see, to make us come back over and over again. But the social networks, they see what we type, they watch where we click, and they know what we like. And before we know it we’re down some kind of strange rabbit hole, and social media looks less like updates from friends, and more like the tabloid sidebar of shame. This is what can make social media the breeding ground of fake news.
To beat the algorithm, add 20 positive influences today. Follow some activists, personalities and well-informed experts on whatever you’re into. The EU Council has put together this Twitter list of accounts sharing news information around COVID-19 which is worth checking. It’s a good place for positive inspiration.
We have a responsibility to understand what spreads online. But as important as sharing lessons from the harms that spread online is the inspiration from the success stories that are emerging from social media through this crisis.
I am going to update this list of social media inspiration during the Coronavirus, as I think that it compliments the fake news fact checking that our governments and critical organisations such as WHO are running.
- Video conferencing apps are bringing us closer together. The Guardian reports that Zoom was downloaded 2.13 million times on 23rd March alone, up from 56,000 a day two months earlier, and 26.9m downloads for the month to 26th March according to Statista.
- Houseparty is the lighter and consumer-friendly version of Zoom. The FT reports that for the week of 16th March 2020, Houseparty saw 2m downloads, up from 130,000 one week earlier, and 5.1m downloads for the month to 26th March according to Statista.
- In the world of fitness, I love what Joe Wicks has achieved, reaching half a million live viewers on his 9am lockdown workouts.
- The UN has issued a first of its kind call to action asking social media influencers to spread the word online around safety and the Coronavirus.
- According to the New York Times, quality news consumption is on the increase on Facebook.
- I love this: live streaming mass from church in Italy.
- NatGeo has a long read well worth reading on fake news around the Coronavirus.
- Twitter is clamping down on misinformation around COVID-19 (31 Mar 2019).
- Facebook is to invest $100m into the news industry, to ‘outlets doing essential local reporting but struggling with a drop in advertising’.
- … and I will continue updating this list over time.
Lastly, I wanted to add that it is vital that we all do what we can to help in these times. This is why I am particularly proud that at Battenhall we have been working closely with some high profile global healthcare initiatives to use social media as a force for good through the Coronavirus, some of these are part of our day job, and for some we have volunteered company time too. I hope we can look back on this crisis one day and feel like we did everything in our power to make a difference.