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How to disinfect your news from the COVID19 infodemic

The misinformation is viral. Here are practical tips from the faculty at the University of Toronto to keep your newsfeed healthy.
BY Skendha Singh |   12-03-2020

Colin Furness
The misinformation is as viral as the bug

For those keeping track, turns out fake news of the Corona Virus outbreak is as contagious as the virus itself. Checkpoint, a cyber-security firm, published a Global Threat Index in January 2020. According to the report – 4000 websites with corona virus in their names had been created this year. According to experts, while these misinformation campaigns were not co-ordinated, the sheer volume of false rumours and speculations has posed serious threats.

Popular speculations have included conspiracy theories (the virus was engineered in a lab in China), myths (the virus does not survive high temperatures), and propaganda (anti-vaxxers for instance).

It is no surprise that the World Health Organisation has labelled the outbreak “a massive infodemic.” It defines infodemic as, “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

BrainGain Magazine spoke to Colin D Furness who is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Information and at the Institute for Health Policy Management and Evaluation (Dalla Lana School of Public Health) at the University of Toronto.

He talked about the virality of the fake news, the responsibilities of the social media giants, and how that feeds into what he teaches.

Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:

  1. What makes the COVID19 outbreak the world’s first infodemic?

    If we’re talking about volumes of information and news coverage, it’s the modern wired age that’s causing the volume, which we didn’t quite have during SARS.  If we’re talking about [the instinct for] disinformation and misinformation, this, sadly, is nothing new.  People have been scapegoating and acting out superstition during pandemics forever. 

  2. Which are the 3 most widespread and dangerous rumours about the outbreak?

    That’s an interesting question.  And it may depend on your perspective. [First,] anything that incites hatred against an identifiable group as the “cause” of disease is both despicable and dangerous, at least to members of that group, but also to the broader social fabric. 

    Second, believing that wearing a paper procedure mask will protect you can be dangerous because they do the opposite: you’re still breathing in virus if an infected person coughs or sneezes near you, but you may be touching your face a lot if the mask is itchy, or to readjust it.  And touching your face with hands that have touched contaminated surfaces is the easiest way to contract the virus.  (Paper masks are useful for people who are sneezing and coughing, to not project droplets, so they’re good for sick people to wear to protect others.) 

    Third, I have heard of recipes for homemade hand sanitizer.  Hands are the main vehicle for getting sick, so I would worry about any recipe that doesn’t include 60% alcohol.

    Those are my top 3.

  3. You specialize in organisational information culture. What are your comments on how the WHO has approached this challenge?

    They are in a difficult position, because so many people’s information behaviour is not particularly rational.  Or, better to say that some people, who are educated and rational, will go to authoritative sources to learn from a trusted source. But most people will respond to what they see on Facebook without taking the time and effort to learn about the virus, and judge what is credible.   If the WHO is doing YouTube videos and Facebook ads, that could be helpful, but it would need to be small, easy-to-understand bits of actionable content. But it’s also important to note that they have a strong political layer to their recommendations.  Strictly from a public health stance, there are few things I don’t agree with – such as discouraging travel bans. 

  4. What actions would you suggest for social media users, and that means most of us, to check the spread of misinformation?

    You may not like my answer much: don’t use social media for news at all.  Ever. Share your pictures and status updates, and wish people happy birthday, and ignore the rest of it. 

  5. Is the onus on platforms or users – to get their information right?

    Now that is a really important question: is social media a common carrier, like a telephone company (no responsibility for content) or a broadcaster (100% responsibility for content)? It’s almost a philosophical question.

    My own view is they are absolutely a broadcaster that crowd-sources content, and it should be entirely the platform’s responsibility.  Facebook decided it didn’t want porn, and so there is none.  They have the capability, and to some extent, like with porn, they recognize that responsibility.  They just aren’t recognizing the whole of it, and of course that is related to revenue they get from ads.  Like broadcasters, they make money from the content they host, and with profit comes responsibility.

  6. Colin Furness
    Colin Furness
    How does this tie in to what you teach at the Faculty of Information?

    That is a very timely question.  Right now, this isn’t a topic we teach directly, but I’m working on an article that tries to outline cognitively and socially why misinformation flourishes, and I am thinking about creating a course about misinformation.  There is cognitive and social psychology, and information behaviour to think about.

  7. What are the key takeaways from this situation for millennials?

    I would boil it down to this: you get what you pay for. 

    What I mean is this: ever since the first radio broadcast licenses were handed out in the US, the airwaves were seen as a public good. And radio license holders were required to reserve a certain amount of time for news broadcasts, for the benefit of the public.  News has been a free public good for generations as a result.  But in a post-truth society, that model doesn’t work anymore.  I subscribe to the Guardian (UK), the New York Times (US) and the Toronto Star (Canada). It’s optional, and it’s money well spent. Fiction is free, but news is something you need to pay for. 

    And that lesson applies to everyone, all the way up to grandparents - who have never paid for news either!



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