WHO warns of 'infodemic'

By Contributor

By Michelle Duff of Stuff

Alongside the pandemic, there’s another viral spread that’s going on - that of false or misleading information. The World Health Organisation calls this the infodemic. 

Mis- and disinformation has grown rapidly in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world, alongside the coronavirus pandemic.

Misinformation describes content that is not true, but hasn’t been created to deliberately hurt others. Disinformation, on the other hand, is both false and or misleading information that is created with intent to harm. Both have a troubling impact.

Liberal democracies like New Zealand are based on the premise that people make up their mind about who they trust and elect based on facts and evidence. When these opinions are based on fiction, it has wide implications for society.

A 2020 Netsafe survey suggested eight in ten Kiwis have seen misinformation on social media. 

So how can we outsmart it?

In Netsafe’s survey, people had shared information they later found out was wrong, but had only read the headline before posting. Reading and understanding the full story before sharing it can help to ensure you’re not part of the viral lift of a lie.

One of the clues for false news is the sources. Genuine news articles often link out to their sources, whether that’s experts, official documents, other articles, or peer-reviewed studies from known institutions. Can what the writer is talking about be fact-checked, or can the story be found anywhere else? 

The background of the author who has written or shared the story or post should also be considered. What is the history of the types of articles they write, do they have particular interests or biases, and what kind of things do they typically share?

Professional journalists who work for reputable news organisations are bound by the codes of conduct of their profession, upheld by their workplaces and the Media Council, as well as media law. It is true the news can distort the truth, or be sensationalist. But when something is wrong, or there is a complaint, it has to be addressed and there are repercussions.

The ethics of journalism say news stories must strive to be objective, fair, and balanced. Sources and information have to be checked to make sure it’s true and safe to use, and are named unless there are special circumstances. Multiple perspectives are often included.

If a claim is coming from a single source, making generalisations with no names, dates, evidence or science to back them up, it may well be misinformation. A lot of spelling and grammar mistakes, strange URLs, and the date on the story (it could be outdated, or a copy of something that happened elsewhere) can be other indicators.

On news sites, opinion pieces must be clearly labelled, and they still have to be based on facts that can be established if challenged.

On social media like Facebook, posts that get the most interaction are often those that inflame or cause emotional responses, because these are more likely to be shared. 

This serves to simplify and emotionalise complex debates, sending people further into echo chambers, as they tend to align with others who agree with them.

So, another good question to ask is whether a story is trying to make the reader feel a certain way, or play on existing biases. Is it trying to elicit a visceral reaction? Does it make you feel angry? If so, you could be being manipulated, and it might be misinformation.

Reporting disclosure statement: Sean Lyons, Chief Technology Officer at Netsafe New Zealand, and Professor Wayne Hope, co-director of the Auckland University of Technology’s Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre gave expert advice for this post.