Fighting the misinformation pandemic in the age of Covid-19
The global disruption unleashed by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has led to an uptick in the use of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter. Facebook’s usage, for example, has increased by as much as 50% in countries hardest hit by Covid-19, whereas the Twitter usage in India has gone up by 30% between early-February and end-March. With the lockdown likely to continue in some form or other, the reliance on social media is likely to rise further.
This has, however, exacerbated pre-existing challenges around curbing misinformation. Some forms of misinformation, such as a motivational quote misattributed to industrialist Ratan Tata, may be benign, but they can often have severe consequences. In April, 10 people in Andhra Pradesh were found in a semi-conscious state after they followed a “home remedy tip” for the coronavirus they found on TikTok. Similarly, misinformation about the role of specific communities in spreading the virus can further deepen the social divide.
Tackling misinformation is a very delicate dance that requires us to traverse a narrow corridor between accurate information and free speech. As many as seven countries including Egypt, Malaysia and China have brought in legislation to control fake news, and almost all of them have been accused of committing excesses. Sensing the danger such steps can invite, an independent European Union committee has advised against bringing laws to curb misinformation.
There are no easy responses, however. Society needs to build resilience and infrastructure to be able to tackle this scourge. It calls for a holistic national strategy, with clear roles for social media platforms, governments and individuals.
Under intense pressure from governments, leading social media platforms have announced some measures to curb misinformation. For example, Facebook has partnered with the International Fact-Checking Network to provide flash grants for fact-checkers fighting coronavirus-linked misinformation. WhatsApp has introduced features that slow down misinformation by restricting the “frequently forwarded” messages to one chat at a time. Twitter has put in place a system that attempts to identify and remove instances of Covid-19-related misinformation.
These measures are welcome, but not enough. In addition to expanding and intensifying the measures already in place, social media platforms must introduce more sophisticated tools, which, for example, sorts and ranks verified news or has a better pattern recognition capacity to remove highly deceiving-in-nature “deep fake” images and audios. This should be prioritised especially in India, where a lot of social media content is audio-visual and in regional languages.
In such a crisis, the government, with its unmatched reach, perceived reliability and trust, has an indispensable role to play. As of now, it has reached out to platforms to remove users spreading misinformation, and, on the other side, has issued public advisories.
Learning from the best practices employed in other countries to curb fake news, the government should consider implementing these three ideas.
First, it should make fighting misinformation a jan andolan (mass movement) by involving people, much as it did with the Swachh Bharat Mission for sanitation. The Australian government’s ”stop and consider” campaign to tackle political misinformation employs the same idea.
Second, it should create a non-partisan national task force that serves as a “rapid response mechanism” to coordinate among public and private agencies. This was pioneered in Canada in the run-up to its 2019 election.
Third, the government can explore creating forums for citizens to receive accurate information. It has already launched a WhatsApp chatbot to provide accurate information on Covid-19. It can create a fact-checking unit that provides accurate information to the public through a website. Mexico created a government-run platform, ”verificado notimex”, which employs a network of fact-checkers.
But, above all this, citizens have the most important role in curbing misinformation. Social media gives each of us immense power. It can be used as a platform for citizen-led mass movements as seen during the agitation against corruption during the last decade.
Since out-of-context images are a major source of misinformation, citizens can be trained to use reverse search image tools such as RevEye and TinEye to locate their origin. Videos present an even higher level of complexity, but tools like InVID have begun to make a difference. In general, we should verify the accuracy of information by looking up a reliable source before forwarding it.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that posts that trigger an emotional response are shared more — that vulnerability is exactly what fake news targets. In short, if a story is too good, too funny, too infuriating, too sweet, or too outrageous, it is probably likely to be untrue.
Subhashish Bhadra and Varad Pande work at Omidyar Network India, an investment firm that invests in bold entrepreneurs who help create a meaningful life for every Indian
The views expressed are personal