The infodemic, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Dr Julie Posetti, an award-winning journalist and academic, leads the global research program of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). Based in Oxford, England, she researches and writes at the intersection of journalism safety, media freedom, media and gender, journalism and disinformation, and the digital transformation of journalism. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/disinfodemic
In one of the policy briefs you co-authored with Kalina Bontcheva for UNESCO, you mentioned cases indicating it is still relatively easy to buy ads promoting disinformation in relation to Covid-19 on tech platforms and that their demonetisation efforts can be bypassed. Do you think the coronavirus will become the ultimate test of self-regulation? If so, how do you think regulators and governments can help tech firms design more robust and transparent screening processes?
The ultimate test to self-regulation is clearly political disinformation, since Covid-19, while scientifically challenging to grasp for the ordinary citizen, is uncontroversially bad for everyone. In contrast, political disinformation is the litmus test. I think one of the risks we face is that despite the evidence we have seen during the infodemic – that the social media companies can in fact act swiftly and decisively to remove dangerous disinformation – there will be an attempt to treat deadly health disinformation differently to political disinformation despite the destabilisation of democracies and the loss of life that are also linked to false content of a political nature that goes viral.
While more work still needs to be done to ensure that attempts to profit from disinformation are more effectively curtailed, there is a bigger challenge related to the need to treat political disinformation, and disinformation-fuelled attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and marginalised groups, as a problem worthy of the same effort and speedy responses that we’ve seen in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. The same applies to disinformation during elections. Part of the accountability mechanism that should be holding the platforms to account in future, can be informed by what measures have been taken during this crisis. That mechanism will need to ensure the rights of privacy and freedom of expression are preserved, but the frameworks we have outlined in the infodemic reports for UNESCO should aid that process.
With respect to the role of regulators and governments, they can play their role by requiring independent fact-checking or vetting of all ads – especially political and issue ads with the latter including Covid-19 related ones. In short, they should implement a third-party, ad-checking programme akin to the sort of fact-checking partnerships under way.
What do you believe is the role of the public in controlling the spread of Covid-19 disinformation?
I believe that combatting disinformation is the responsibility of every person who wants to be able to breathe clean air and drink unpolluted water. We have a collective responsibility to counter Covid-19 misinformation and disinformation everywhere we encounter it, no matter what form it takes, and no matter how well intentioned it is – whether it’s on Facebook messenger, a family WhatsApp group, or in an email chain repeating dangerous falsehoods promoted by political interests. It is also essential that every citizen has access to reliable, accurate information to help ensure that falsehoods and lies can be countered with facts and critical journalism that seeks to hold governments and other powerful actors to account. This requires support for robust, independent journalism and an approach that encourages the platforms to compensate credible news outlets and promote their public interest content to ensure that freedom of expression is preserved in a way that acknowledges the vital corollary of press freedom.
You also suggested in your report that in the fight against this infodemic, tech companies can support independent journalism projects with “no strings attached”. How can you ascertain impartiality in the research or media projects tech companies are funding, especially given the huge amounts of money that are sometimes involved? Should there be an intermediary tasked with oversight?
In answer to your last question, yes! I believe there needs to be a globally representative intermediary group comprised of independent academics and civil society organisations that is free of influence from the platforms – they should be excluded, along with those who are significantly dependent upon the platforms (and other major donors). The model adopted to oversee independent public broadcasters could be useful. An arms-length board that is selected to oversee operations and funding distribution but has no editorial influence and protects the operations from the government that provides the funding. There are a number of attempts to do this sort of thing currently – important efforts – but there are also concerns about systems that place the platforms themselves at the table, along with actors who are dependent upon said platforms at the helm.
Your paper highlighted that few actors have made provision for independent oversight or impact assessment of the actions taken, including evaluation of any unintended undermining of fundamental rights. How can the public or governments be certain those measures are effective, measure their success or work towards alternative solutions then? In the absence of a meaningful oversight mechanism how do you envisage one?
This situation is extremely concerning. We are seeing legislation rushed through in response to the infodemic that both compromises media freedom and privacy. Evidence of the overreach of law enforcement agencies in response to the crisis is also worrying. Governments with a strong human rights record, like many in the EU, could consider adopting a framework built on the recommendations contained in our second policy brief for UNESCO. A model for this might be the 11-point plan I developed for UNESCO to respond to an earlier problem – post-Snowden awareness of the impacts of national security and anti-terrorism overreach on investigative journalism that relies on confidential sources and whistleblowers. (full book is here)
This requires accountability journalism to ensure such plans are implemented and monitored. Critical, independent journalism is a bulwark against the infodemic and it is facing an “extinction event”. It must survive the pandemic.