How social media can beat the Coronavirus infodemic

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.

How fake news spreads through social media

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.

New coronavirus fact checkers launch

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:

Social media is a powerful force for good

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.

Beating the Coronavirus through information

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?

Making social media a safer place

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.

Positive inspiration online

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.

Facebook dataset for academic research into effect of social media on democracy launched

The potential that social media has as a positive force for change in society is an area of major focus for me. In equal and opposite measure, the dangers that bad actors using social media pose I believe need understanding more fully, especially to the person in the street, and the message around these dangers needs communicating so that the potential for social media to interfere and negatively influence society can be effectively addressed.

So this morning, a piece of news caught my eye. One of the largest social science datasets ever constructed, one quintillion bytes of raw data, from Facebook, is being handed to researchers to look at the effects of social media on democracy and elections.

This has been announced by the team at Social Science One, who say: “it includes information on whether social media posts were fact-checked or flagged by users as hate speech… the types of people who viewed, shared, liked, reacted to, shared without viewing, and otherwise interacted” with Facebook posts.

Social Science One has expanded on just how big a job it was getting this data together. The job now is what can we discern from it:

“The difficult lessons we learned in the production of this dataset may be useful for other platforms, governments, and academics going forward with many types of data sharing projects. It turned out that Facebook’s legal, engineering, and data science infrastructures were not prepared for a data sharing initiative of the magnitude we jointly envisioned. It has taken dozens of employees countless hours, since then, to build all that is necessary for data sharing with independent academic researchers.”

Good to see this and thank you Gary King and Nathaniel Persily. Their post has all the detail and includes the codebook for the full dataset.

My TED Talk: how do we reboot social media?

Every hour of every day, one million social media profiles, deemed so harmful that we should not be influenced by them, are deleted altogether off the face of the internet. This is a sheer tidal wave of what the world’s governments call ‘online harms’, and it is only just beginning. 

In my TED Talk, which I delivered at TEDxBristol, and which has gone live today, I take a look at what’s really happening on social media that we need to know about, from the harms that spread online to the responsibility we all have to better understand what’s real and what’s fake.

I look at political interference from trolls, the impact of Fake News, how to kill a bot, and I explore what I learnt back in July 2006 when I first wrote the page on social media on Wikipedia (yep, that was me!). 

I believe that through awareness, education, and a more mindful approach to what we do online, the power is in our hands to make social media a force for good in society today. Because while we wait for regulation, fines and legislation to catch up, the future is in our hands. 

So this is my TED Talk, do please share, comment and like. I hope you enjoy it. 

Can Instagram lead the way in ‘depressurizing’ social media

The head of Instagram, Adam Mossieri, has been working on the next phase of Instagram’s journey, going beyond its current incarnation where numbers of followers and likes determine one’s influencer status. Last year, Instagram rolled out a trial of hiding the Like count for certain Instagram profiles, and users whose accounts this took effect on reported a sense of relief at not having to hit a certain number of likes on their posts any longer.

In a new deep dive into Mossieri’s plans in The New York Times, reporter Amy Chozick talks of how the Instagram boss “is thinking about the larger, potentially corrosive impact of social media” while he considers what to change about the social network, with Like counts his being next move. Chosick has had a number of interviews with Mossieri now, and has reviewed his plans for Instagram.

“Likes are the social media currency undergirding an entire influencer economy, inspiring a million Kardashian wannabes and giving many of us regular people daily endorphin hits. But lately, Mr. Mosseri has been concerned about the unanticipated consequences of Instagram as approval arbiter,” says Chosick in her analysis of the situation.

I think that what is key here is perfecting a delicate balancing act for Instagram. On the one hand, a social network needs people to create – it needs content. Something Twitter and Facebook have been struggling with of late, but which Instagram especially with its big focus on Stories has not needed to worry about. Like counts, follower counts and views are key to keeping us engaged.

On the other hand, a responsible social network today has a duty to the world, to society as a whole. Be that through bringing in tighter controls, or changing how the social network’s fundamentals, like the Like count, work. Facebook’s problems with fake content, Twitter’s issues with trolling, and Instagram’s issues around self harm are well-documented. Taking a strong stance on an issue like mental health is a big dichotomy for social networks, so nailing this balancing act is key.

The key phrase that came from Mossieri in his time with Chosick at the New York Times, for me, was this question which he posed to his colleagues at Instagram: “How do we depressurize the app?”

I would love to see Instagram lead the way in depressurizing social media. And balance is going to be key.

Chinese social network of the moment TikTok, for example, not only has public Like counts, but it adds them all from your profile and displays the grand total on a user’s profile page, along with public post view counts, so it has gone completely in the opposite direction to Instagram. While observing TikTok’s rapid growth, Instagram will surely be considering its choices carefully.

The future of social media

Hi, I’m Drew, I am founder of Battenhall, and this is where you can follow my work and connect. I’m a consultant in applied social media and digital technologies in the fields of marketing, public relations and reputation management. 

I am a commentator in the media, on TV, radio and in print, on social media’s influence on society. I also lecture on this topic, publish research through Battenhall, and am a public speaker at TEDx, SMW and others.

Contact me email or via my office.

Work & profile

Since launching Battenhall in 2013, I have built it up to be the UK’s top rated social media agency, best digital PR agency in the UK, best specialist agency in the UKbest large social media agency, best PR agency, and PRCA agency of the future, amongst others.

I wrote the Wikipedia page on Social Media in 2006, and have been an early adopter and media commentator on digital technologies since the 1990s. New Media Age named me the UK’s most respected digital consultant in its 2011 Reputation Online report, I have been named one of the top 25 innovators in EMEA by the Holmes Report in 2017, and am a current member of the PR Week Powerbook. 

Projects & research

I am based in London and spend my time building the Battenhall business and working with clients globally. I am involved in a range of social media research projects which look at how social media technologies are shaping society, and trends shaping the future of communications. These research projects can be found here and include regular publications reviewing social media trends, the Battenhall Monthly, the daily Battenhall WhatsApp, the FTSE 100 Social Media Report and The Instagram Brands 100.

My current side projects include researching the impact and potential of AI in smart speakers and voice assistants on consumer communications, and in private social media such as messaging apps, groups and Stories. An update on these can be found on the Battenhall blog and my Twitter

To get in touch, here are the places I spend most of my time

// My profiles in The FT, Channel 4, The BBCForbes and The Holmes Report // the NMA rankingsPR Power Book and PR Week // articles in the press // video interviewspodcasts & photos //