The dangers of online disinformation is by now common knowledge, but that hasn’t seemed to stop its spread. The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted both the pervasiveness of disinformation and the danger it poses to society. We are in a situation where we need to rely on information for our health and safety. Yet, when accurate and false information sit side-by-side online, it is extremely difficult to know what to trust. The Director-General of the World Health Organization recognized this problem as early as February when he said that, alongside the pandemic, we are also fighting an “infodemic.” From articles, videos, and tweets discounting the severity of the virus to full-blown conspiracy theories, COVID-19 disinformation is everywhere.

Despite the steps social media sites have taken  to combat disinformation about COVID-19, an Oxford study found that 88% of all false or misleading information about the coronavirus appear on social media sites. Another report found that, out of over 49 million tweets about the virus, nearly 38% contained misleading or manipulated content. The reason is largely because social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are trying to put a Band-Aid on a systemic issue. “They’ve built this whole ecosystem that is all about engagement, allows viral spread, and hasn’t ever put any currency on accuracy,” said Carl Bergstrom, a Professor at the University of Washington. Simply put, the root of disinformation is not just based on the content being shared, but also on the deep-seated practices used by social media to keep users engaged.

How Social Media Platforms Can Fix This

A new report by The German Marshall Fund takes the problem of disinformation head on and outlines what social media platforms can do to combat the problem and foster reliable and accurate reporting. Here are just a few of the steps the report recommends:

Design With “Light Patterns”

Websites and social media platforms often use “dark pattern” interfaces and defaults to manipulate users and hide information about how the site operates. Light pattern design, therefore, involves transparency about how the site operates. This involves using defaults that favor transparence, and even using labeling to shows the source of information, whether the account posting the content is verified or not, and even if audio and visual content has been altered.

Consistent Enforcement of Terms of Use

While all social media platforms have in-depth rules for user activity, these terms are generally inconsistently applied and enforced. By setting a transparent standard and consistently enforcing that standard, social media platforms can more successfully combat disinformation and other toxic online activity.

Independent Accountability

Instead of using government policy to regulate content, the U.S. should set up a technology-neutral agency to hold platforms accountable for a code of conduct focused on practices such as light pattern designs. By focusing on overseeing positive platform practices, the government can avoid having a hand in decisions about what content is “good” or “bad.”

What You Can Do Now

However helpful these changes to social media platforms are, the truth is we aren’t there yet. Fake and fiction stand side by side online, with no immediate way to discern which is which. When taking in information, it is up to you to figure out what is reputable and what is inaccurate. With the large amount of COVID-19 disinformation swarming the internet, its more important than ever to use our critical skills in two specific ways.

Be Self-Critical

Our personal world views, biases, and emotions shape how we take in information. When looking at content online, it’s important to think about your own motivations for believing something to be true or not. Ask yourself why you think something is true or false. Is it largely because you want to believe it or disbelieve it? When we read something online that makes us angry, there is something satisfying about sharing that anger with others. Before sharing content, ask whether your desire to share it is an emotional response or because the information is accurate and important. If it’s predominately coming from your emotions, reconsider if it’s worth sharing.

Be Critical of All Content

In general, we should initially read everything with a degree of skepticism. Doubt everything and be your own fact checker. Look at other websites reporting the same information. Are any of them reliable? Are they all citing the same sources, and, if so, is that source reputable? Don’t share an article based solely on the headline. Read the full article to understand if the headline is based on fact or is just speculation. Look at what sort of language the article is using. Is it largely opinion based? Does it cite reputable sources? Is it written in a way that is meant to evoke an emotional response?

 

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand how our in-person interactions can have a negative impact on ourselves and those around us, but it’s important to also understand how our interactions online can lead to similar  outcomes. Given the stupefying amount of disinformation about the coronavirus circulating online, it’s more important now than ever to be think critically about what information you’re consuming and be aware about what you say and share online.

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