Everyone is looking for news during the Covid-19 crisis and traditional media play an important role in providing people with reliable health information during the pandemic and helping them to navigate through the effects of the virus.
However, misinformation and false information have also increased during the crisis. This particularly affects vulnerable sections of society that classic media reporting might not reach – and social media platforms are seen as the main source of misinformation.
These are some of the key messages that came out of the ‘Corona: is misinformation more contagious than the virus?’ virtual event, organised by the European Science-Media Hub in cooperation with the European Parliament’s Liaison Office (EPLO) in Berlin on 28 September 2020. Members of the European Parliament, media researchers and around 50 journalists across Europe participated in the webinar. The event was part of the ‘science-media days’, planned by the ESMH for science journalists and media representatives from different European countries.
Journalists play an important role in providing people with credible information during pandemic
The First Vice-Chair of STOA, Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany), Parliament’s rapporteur on Horizon 2020, the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation, pointed to the fast-changing complexities in all fields of modern democracies, which has led to a general crisis of confidence and trust in politics as well as in science. He saw a ‘joint crisis’ in both fields, which more sophisticated communication strategies have so far been unable to tackle. ‘It is challenging for political and scientific institutions to find the right path between explaining complexity, trying to be more digestible, while not becoming populist’ he stressed, noting that, as a way out of this situation, when reducing complexity in decision-making, people may tend to ask for more leadership and authority. According to Ehler, neglecting to inform and to hold the necessary deep discussion with the public, about research budget cuts for example, may have ‘dramatic consequences’ for Europe.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reported on studies about media consumption patterns in several countries conducted since the outbreak of the pandemic. ‘Journalistic standards work successfully in the crisis’, Nielsen emphasised, ‘journalists have a positive role for many people during the pandemic’. Although misinformation is a serious issue in public life, many respondents said they feel well informed through the media in their country, and only a minority came across severe misinformation. Social media platforms are seen as the main source of misinformation. ‘Most people have a nuanced view’ about information content and ‘whom they trust to navigate through the crisis’. However, media researchers found a minority of citizens have lost all trust in institutions. Nielsen noted that ‘These are most likely to be misinformed’. The poor, the less educated, and young persons are turning their backs on journalism and institutions at the same time as tending to consume more social media. Nielson recommended that professional journalists feature fewer politicians and report less controversial issues and remarks, and on the contrary showcase more practitioners, such as nurses and doctors, to regain their credibility among more vulnerable people.
Christina Berndt, author and science editor at Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Germany, could not confirm a loss of trust in the traditional media. She pointed out that ‘We see huge demand, with surging numbers of clicks on our homepage, people seem to seek more information and orientation’. This is a typical scenario in all kinds of crises, as was already observed during the financial crisis or terrorist attacks such as 9/11.
Berndt presented figures showing the upwards trend in subscriptions for several German media outlets, with a steep peak in March and April of this year. She noted that ‘People are eager to get accurate information. In Germany trust and interest in science rose to 75 % in April. She does not see classic media and social media as antipodean, but rather as complementary. She found, when people turn their backs on expert debates or flee reality, it was not so much due to a lack of information or education, but may be a result of anxiety. Berndt recommended to her fellow journalists to keep doing a good job. On misinformation she was clear, ‘As it grows we have to handle it and debunk it.’
Detoxing the algorithms of the social media platforms
Tiemo Wölken (S&D, Germany), rapporteur for the Digital Services Act in Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) underlined that the business model of the social media platforms is the reason for the virality of such harmful content. ‘The algorithms that sort the timelines and feeds of users tend to favour content that is most attention-seeking. This means that controversial, interesting, scandalous or otherwise memorable content is rewarded and shown more visibly … Rather than spending much time worrying about what kind of content should be deleted, we should follow the money and regulate business models that clearly do more harm than good. Wölken advocated strengthening user rights in relation to the curation of content by online platforms.’
‘The idea is therefore not to censor unwanted content, but to make users less dependent on the algorithms that reward attention-seeking content by giving them more choice over what content they would like to see. In a way, we are tackling misinformation and harmful content by increasing the freedom of information for users.’
Luca Nicotra, data analyst and activist for the ‘Avaaz’ civic platform, reported on the results of a study about misinformation on Facebook during the Covid-19 crisis.
‘Misinformation websites outperformed health institution websites on Facebook’ in almost all phases during the pandemic. Despite Facebook’s endeavours to label false postings, Avaaz has analysed that there are ‘Facebook pages which have been publishing misinformation over years’. Nicotra stated that ‘Facebook does not inform millions of users that they have seen false content’. This applies to replications of false content or label clones, and there are no clear and transparent criteria for Facebook labelling. The Avaaz NGO sees the reason for this situation in the DNA of the platform. Nicotra’s recommendations are to: ‘1. Correct the record by providing independently fact-checked corrections and 2. detox the algorithms by downgrading misinformation posts’.