The anti-news virus
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 30, 2020 - 12:00am

In a way the COVID-19 era has moved into a new phase with governments around the world beginning to open up for business after long weeks and months of lockdown. In the UK and Europe, governments are consulting with public health experts and their healthcare services and sending people back to work and children back to school.

Data is being gathered and crunched for policy-makers and politicians to argue and agonise over. People have come up with new clichés like “the new normal,” so that they can handle the situation better. Worrying about the future is messing with people’s minds. The minute-by-minute reporting of news channels is competing with the equally slick productions of the anti-news machine is being lapped up and feeding the bottomless appetite of the anxious beast of public opinion and creating a seething monster.

The way mis- and disinformation is shaping public opinion is eroding the value of evidence-based, fact-checked, properly sourced, and contextualised information is to me the most worrying aspect of all this. It’s increasingly difficult for people to figure out what’s really going on and how to stay safe.

I am in several Whatsapp, Viber and Telegram groups with friends and family and the difference between the narratives of mainstream media and the narratives being constructed by ordinary people and particularly the older generation are acute and staggering.

The United Nations has even launched an initiative that aims “to flood the digital space with facts” about the COVID-19 pandemic. “Verified” is set up “to deliver trusted information, life-saving advice and stories from the best of humanity.”

When it was launched, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming explained that COVID-19 is not just this century’s largest public health emergency, but also a communication crisis. “It is not because there is a scarcity of information. On the contrary, there is a glut of information. But fiction is often circulating at a faster rate than fact, endangering the public health response and ultimately people’s lives. Purveyors of misinformation are creating storylines and slick content that are filling information voids where science has no answers.

They offer promises of cures that have no evidence of benefit or may even be harmful. They are savvy about using narratives that link to people’s fears and appeal to people’s need for answers or a culprit. While misinformation has always had a dynamic in this crisis, there are signs that its role is dangerously increasing. You have seen the flood of new conspiracy theories in recent weeks. Unfortunately, in the algorithm-driven social media era, the popularity of a post often has more influence over who sees it than whether it is factual.

A recent study by the British Medical Journal concluded that over one-quarter of the most-viewed videos on YouTube about COVID-19 contained misleading information. This is not because factual information has not been uploaded by international institutions and government agencies – those videos were just not appealing or entertaining enough to make people want to view them.”

It is another deeply unhealthy dimension of the pandemic to bear witness to family and friends falling prey to the outlandish predatory claims of the mixed array of charlatans and extremists hitching a ride on a disease that has killed 100,000 in the USA alone to further their own agendas.

Probably for first time in living memory, there is only one story everyone in the world is talking about, so there is this anti-news, Black Mirror version of journalism all targeting people to get into the conversation. They have their own reasons: some are purely posting about coronavirus to get the clicks – pure click-bait. Others are people selling t-shirts – trying to monetize the same conversation. You might be seeing posts about Iran arguing that because of coronavirus, US should remove sanctions. From Russia the anti-news opinion hackers that blamed the USA for AIDS in the 80s are now blaming the USA for coronavirus.

The public (and journalists for that matter) need to slice up the conversation and figure out why all of these players are doing this. There are patterns to the way mis- and disinformation are spread during crises that are analysed by companies like Graphika, which uses technology to create large-scale explorable maps of social media landscapes.

Mapping has shown that at the beginning of the global pandemic, most of the online conversation was being dominated by reference to real content, and conspiracy theorists were being pushed to the sides. This follows previous patterns of how information spreads during a crisis, where the conversation starts with mainstream information dominating. Usually at some point the mainstream news sources move on to other stories and leave space for disinformation campaigners to come in, but with coronavirus the media hasn’t moved on. There’s been so much information from more reliable sources that for a while it was harder for disinformation to get through. That is no longer the case, if the discussions I’ve been having in Viber groups are anything to go by.

The experts who examine the way social media users are being manipulated advise people to avoid doom-scrolling at all costs. They say don’t look to social media for your news, they were built for conversation, not news. Another thing to remember as you evaluate information is that it is much harder to get to the truth than to make something up, so don’t just stop with a couple of sources – it’s important to refer to different sources that you don’t necessarily agree with.

Another test could be to check with yourself how something that you’ve read makes you feel. Were you entertained and/or informed? And by what measure?

Ask yourself what you’re looking for online? Are you looking for information or entertainment? Remember that a lot of opinion is basically entertainment, and that if you’re looking for solid information you’re better off going to news wire services like the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse whose stock in trade is getting reliable, unbiased information out fast.

My radical idea is to go to a news website if you want news.

Politicians aren’t helping. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson intervened during Thursday’’ daily coronavirus briefing to prevent scientific advisors answering questions about his aide, Dominic Cummings who’s been embroiled in a scandal because he didn’t follow lockdown regulations that himself helped formulate. Johnson said he wanted to “protect them” from “an unnecessary attempt to ask a political question”; but using political tactics around critical subjects like our health, has the potential for profound long-term effects.


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