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'The Covid-19 infodemic left people confused about what to believe'

Meanwhile, problems with search engines have largely fallen under the public radar, writes FuJo’s Dr Eileen Culloty.

Dr Eileen Culloty Researcher, FuJo

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 (Ireland) report was released today. Covering 40 countries across the world, the study aims to understand how news
is being consumed globally, with a particular focus on digital news consumption and the devices used to access the news.

THE COVID-19 CRISIS underscored the problems surrounding digital information.

The public faced an onslaught of news and opinion (often about conflicting scientific reports), as well as rumours, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The World Health Organisation (WHO) called it an ‘infodemic’: an overabundance of accurate and inaccurate claims that left many people confused about what to believe.

Ordinary people are arguably the most important component of any effort to combat online disinformation.

After all, disinformation only becomes a problem when people are willing to believe it or share it. Fact-checks play an important role by directly refuting false claims.

Throughout the pandemic, TheJournal.ie fact-checked a myriad of false claims and rumours, many of which circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

More broadly, media literacy aims to increase awareness about the importance of assessing the credibility of information. For example, the Be Media Smart campaign developed by Media Literacy Ireland has the core message: stop, think, and check.

At the FuJo Institute, we worked with Age Action to create a similar resource for older people who were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 disinformation and scams.

Trust in media

Although the Digital News Report survey was undertaken before the crisis hit Ireland, it is reassuring to find that Irish attitudes to digital information are broadly positive. The majority of respondents (62%) are concerned about online disinformation and two thirds recognise the importance of independent journalism.

Regarding likely sources of disinformation, one-third are concerned about from governments and almost one-fifth are concerned about from activists.

This indicates an awareness that governments and activists may have a specific agenda that colours their communication.

Interestingly, 15% are concerned about receiving false information from ordinary people or peers; this is higher than the UK (7%) and the EU average (12%). Ordinary people are in fact a major source of disinformation, but often unwittingly and without bad intentions.

Many people think they are being helpful by alerting others to alarming stories, which seems to have been a big factor in the circulation of rumours and hoaxes surrounding COVID-19.

The online source most people are concerned about is Facebook. As Facebook is still the most popular online platform in Ireland, this is unsurprising.

However, YouTube is arguably as central to the disinformation ecosystem as Facebook. A recent study from researchers at the University of Ottawa analysed the top YouTube results for the terms ‘coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’ and found that more than a quarter of the most-viewed videos contained misleading information.

In addition, YouTube poses greater difficulties for fact-checkers because false claims are often embedded in lengthy videos.

Irish audiences are more trusting of news obtained via search engines (31%) than social media (19%), which probably reflects the attention placed on social media platforms as sources of disinformation.

Search issues

Related problems with search engines have largely fallen under the public radar.

The way search engines select and prioritise information is not neutral.

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For example, a recent Covid-19 study found that Google Search and DuckDuckGo (an internet search engine which says its aim is to protect searchers’ privacy and therefore doesn’t profile users) returned completely different results for the same search queries.

In addition, autocomplete suggestions have been manipulated by bad actors and in particular by the far-right.

In 2016, an investigation by the Observer found that Google’s search algorithm and its autocomplete function prioritised websites promoting climate-change denial, homophobia and conspiracy theories.

Developing public understanding of these issues remains crucial. It is not enough to simply foster concern about online information, audiences need the media and information skills to understand how information is structured online and to evaluate credibility for themselves.

Dr Eileen Culloty is a researcher at the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, where she focuses on disinformation. She is also a member of the working group panel of Media Literacy Ireland. This year’s global Digital News Report can be found here and the Irish report, sponsored by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), can be found here.

About the author:

Dr Eileen Culloty  / Researcher, FuJo

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