Disinformation is widely perceived as a great threat to liberal democracies. Commentators blame it for contributing to Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, denial of the climate crisis and the anti-vaccination movement.
The coronavirus pandemic has placed yet another spotlight on the spread of false or misleading information. This might be disinformation when spread deliberately or misinformation when spread unintentionally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared early on that an “infodemic” was occurring alongside Covid-19. For example, according to Tehran, an estimated 700 Iranians died of methanol poisoning because of claims it could cure the virus.
However, discussion of the “infodemic” has given a further lease of life to oversimplistic ways of thinking about the problem. Ordinarily, it is difficult to prove what effect one message has among many. But Covid-19 has provided clearer evidence of how misinformation affects behaviour.
Dozens of 5G phone masts were vandalised in Britain, due to disinformation wrongly suggesting a conspiracy using such technology to spread coronavirus. Ibuprofen sales declined after questionable evidence suggested the painkiller was dangerous. The link between misinformation and behaviour appears clearer during health scares. But proving disinformation influences voting behaviour, or undermines trust and social cohesion, is far more challenging.
In theory, the fear and frustration generated by the pandemic is perfect for disinformation and misinformation to spread but we have limited evidence of their broader societal effects. So how can we better understand what impact disinformation is really having on societies?
Based on research with colleagues Francesca Granelli, Jente Althuis, and Neville Bolt at King’s College London’s Centre for Strategic Communications, our answer is this: we need to look beyond social media. Despite being routinely blamed for disinformation, social media is only part of the problem.
Certainly, online solutions such as improved fact checking, filtering algorithms, and internet regulation will help limit its spread. Yet fear and uncertainty during pandemics have always turned people towards ineffectual or lethal home remedies, long before the internet.
Blaming social media ignores the importance of disinformation spread by domestic political actors and traditional media. Political leaders and even scientists in some countries have made misleading claims about supposed cures for Covid-19. The selective use of statistics – be it economic projections or illness and death rates – can mislead too.
Disinformation spreads through the interaction of many different information sources, not just social media. For British people, disinformation on social media may not even be the biggest issue. They overwhelmingly distrust social media news and rarely share it.
Research shows they see disinformation from politicians and traditional media as more common and concerning. The 2019 and 2017 elections, and the Brexit referendum, saw well documented accusations of disinformation from all sides. In parallel, public health campaigns have encouraged citizens to be more aware of disinformation, but specifically because things “aren’t always what they seem online”.
We don’t know if disinformation is more prominent today, but citizens seem more aware of it. It is the subject of news reports more than ever. Its consequences seem clearer, and the public have been primed to look for it.
To use it openly is therefore especially dangerous, undermining faith in the political system while citizens are being asked to trust official advice in order to save lives.
We can learn from the Covid-19 “infodemic” if we want to. We must learn more about how disinformation spreads offline at the dinner table, in the pub, at the school gate. We are all susceptible to disinformation – not just people we think are ill-informed.
We need a better understanding of when to call out disinformation and when to ignore it. Sometimes ignoring a fringe theory, seen by few, will be preferable to amplifying it with an article viewed by millions.
Limiting the spread of disinformation on social media is important. But only by looking beyond social media will we understand the impact disinformation is really having on society.
Dr Thomas Colley is a teaching fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. The views expressed are personal and may not reflect those of his employers
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