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Anti-lockdown protesters on O'Connell Street, Dublin.

Are we winning the fight against misinformation?

Is it even winnable at all? Or is false information just a fact of life now?

IN THE LAST few years, we all seemed to pick up a few new words. 

Terms that would have made no sense four years ago are now in our everyday vocabulary thanks to extreme global events. 

Things like social distancing, rapid antigen testing, flattening the curve and super-spreader have entered the realms of polite conversation when once they would have elicited a vacant stare.

Communities had to learn these terms as they navigated a deadly pandemic as public health advice, the news, and online spaces gave us constant updates about Covid-19.

Then we got another new word to describe the influx of all the new words we were having to learn: infodemic. 

A sandwich of ‘information’ and ‘epidemic’, the World Health Organisation defines an infodemic as ‘too much information, including false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.’

Due to growing digitisation – i.e more of us getting our news on social media and from online news sites – information can spread faster and wider whether it’s true or not. 

Too much information, whether true or false, can cause confusion, according to the WHO. 

In short, being overwhelmed with constant information makes it harder to sieve facts from fiction, even for professional fact-checkers. And not just during a pandemic. 

Just as worry over Covid-19 seemed like it was beginning to decrease, the crisis in Ukraine began and fact-checkers focused their attention on verifying footage, photos and claims coming from sources often claiming to be reporting on the ground. 

On the first day of the invasion, members of the European Digital Media Observatory (of which The Journal is a member) fact checked 34 pieces of false information about the war in the first 14 hours alone. 

We debunked footage of fighter pilots  and ‘front line’ photos of the First Lady of Ukraine while examining war time propaganda narratives. 

EDMO were quick to respond to allegations the highly publicised atrocities committed in the Kyiv commuter town Bucha were ‘a staged performance’ by Ukrainian forces, not attacks on civilians by Russian soldiers. 

This week our colleagues at analysed grisly footage of corpses on the street in response to a claim they were ‘faked’ because one ‘moved its arms.’ Instead a drop on the windshield wiper from the car recording the footage creates a slight distortion. This kind of work is exhausting and exposes fact-checkers to traumatic images. It pulls them into rabbit-hole of fact-checking ‘fact-checks’.

The Journal began noticing a pattern of ‘fake’ fact-checks from bad actors used in particular to deny attacks on civilians and we weren’t the only ones.  We heard from experts that the ultimate aim of this strategy might be just to make it so difficult for audiences to trust what they read and see that they abandon legitimate news sources altogether. 

It seems to be working: misinformation has become a defining factor of life on the internet right now, from Donald Trump and Brexit through to Covid conspiracies and QAnon. 

So this month on The Good Information Project we wanted to ask the question: Are we winning the war against misinformation? But also is it even possible to win?

Research has found that Ireland may be struggling with the deluge to sort dodgy information from the facts.  

57% of people find it difficult to tell the difference between true and false news on the web, according to 2022 research released by Deloitte. 

 The Digital Consumer Trend report found that just under half of Irish respondents (42%) had stopped using a social media platform in the past year either permanently or temporarily. 

Of that group 30% said this was due to finding ‘an abundance of fake news.’ 

Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how we got here and how we find the best way forward. 

We’ll be talking to those who have had disinformation affect their relationship with loved ones as well as experts to find out how false information is being spread in Ireland and Europe. 

We’ll be asking if fact-checks still have a place in the fight if they’re being weaponised and exploring other strategies to use – like “prebunking.”

Finally we’ll be looking at whether misinformation is something we can fight – or is it just something we have to accept as a condition of having access to the internet?


We want to hear from you

The Journal launched The Good Information Project with the goal of enlisting readers to take a deep dive with us into key issues impacting Ireland right now.

You can keep up to date by signing up to The Good Information Project newsletter in the box below. If you want to join the discussion, ask questions or share your ideas on this or other topics, you can find our Facebook group here or contact us directly via WhatsApp.

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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