We need a lot more than media literacy to fight Covid-19 disinformation
Disinformation is on the verge of rigged stories spreading like wildfire on social media. While disinformation has always been with us, the power with which it spreads on social media platforms is new. Since the US elections in 2016, the term has increased tenfold in the headlines.
Four years ago the focus was on Russian interference in elections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that non-state actors pose a significant threat. Even before the pandemic, around 62% of Irish people were worried about what is real and what is fake on their social media feeds, according to the 2020 Reuters Digital News Report. Given the amount of Covid-19 disinformation over the past nine months, that percentage will likely be far higher when the 2021 report is released later this year.
Dr. Jane Suiter is the Irish Research Council’s 2020 Researcher of the Year for her work on the information environment in elections and referendums, as well as deliberation in public spaces. She is Associate Professor at Dublin City University and Director of the FuJo Research Institute
Tackling vaccine disinformation is a must when adoption begins. As part of their fact-checking series, TheJournal.ie has documented several cases of anti-Vax content circulating on social media in Ireland, including claims that the vaccines lead to “genetic manipulation” or “female sterilization”.
The anti-Vax movement was well established before the pandemic and used the crisis as an opportunity to increase support for their cause. Those who oppose vaccines have different motives, some of which are more convincing to science than others. Internationally, some are influenced by “alternative medicine” who are suspicious of modern medicine, while others are motivated by genuine concern for their children and grandchildren. In Ireland, for example, some research has found that parents within the anti-HPV vaccine movement were motivated to act because of the perceived lack of satisfactory responses from their own doctors.
Many assume that the antidote to disinformation is relatively simple: increasing media literacy. In fact, research has shown that simply asking people to ponder the accuracy of everything they see on their newsfeeds greatly improves their ability to disapprove of disinformation while reducing their intention to share disinformation.
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We know that the best way to spread disinformation is through emotional appeals in personal networks
For this reason, various types of literacy are regularly encouraged to promote, including information and science literacy, but above all media literacy. Many countries have allocated additional funds to media literacy programs or launched campaigns such as bemediasmart.ie in Ireland. Media literacy activities are often aided by the social media platforms, along with fairly minimal efforts to promote accurate information such as links to the World Health Organization on controversial Covid content. Like Dr. Eileen Culloty and I argue in a forthcoming book on disinformation and manipulation in digital media, while these efforts are worthwhile and the intentions are harmless, they are unfortunately not that easy to resolve.
There is limited evidence that literacy programs are effective in all cases. Most are aimed at young adults and children and are taught through educational programs. However, we know that older adults often share more disinformation than younger groups. It is therefore imperative to also take into account the lifelong literacy needs of older age groups, since without this there is a real risk that the generation gap will widen.
Research has shown that media literacy can provide people with false confidence in their ability to recognize disinformation
There are also clear limits to what literacy education in any form can achieve. It places the greatest value on the individual and on individual action.
However, we know that simple individual correction is unlikely when disinformation is received from peers or when our reactions are emotionally charged. This type of peer sharing is particularly insidious and problematic because we know that the best way to spread disinformation is through emotional appeals in personal networks. Personal storytelling is particularly difficult to counteract as it is not really amenable to fact-checking and the contradiction of personal stories is socially taboo. Anti-Vax groups take advantage of this by highlighting personal statements from parents who claim their children have been badly affected by a vaccine.
Other research has found that media literacy can provide people with false confidence in their ability to spot disinformation. Researchers also fear that media literacy may foster cynicism towards all information by encouraging people to be critical. This is particularly problematic as bad actors use the same “critical thinking” and “questioning” rhetoric to undermine science and evidence-based information.
Therefore, these public-facing actions should only be seen as part of a broader effort to combat disinformation, an important task that we are working towards this year towards mass vaccination. In a research project we’re working on, Provenance, we try to create points of friction or encourage people to pause and think before liking or sharing a post. Twitter is also experimenting with this type of approach that can help break the cycle of instant response on social media. These efforts can be complemented by media literacy or fact-checking requests.
Some researchers are working on games with the knowledge that showing people how to produce disinformation can be a form of vaccination. In other research, we examine how to cultivate the power of citizen voices and peer storytelling to amplify accurate information. Citizens ‘voices are already being used successfully in other areas such as citizens’ assemblies and the first results of our research on Covid-19 disinformation and are encouraging.
The message then to the government, Nphet, and others responsible for launching the vaccine program is that tackling disinformation about the vaccine and virus must be a multi-pronged effort. Investing in media literacy is vital, but so is hearing from colleagues, hearing personal stories, and understanding that vaccine efficacy is part of general scientific consensus, not just the opinion of individual scientists. The latest behavioral and crisis-related research can be found online (scibeh.org), a really useful resource for citizens, policy makers and journalists.
Dr. Jane Suiter is the Irish Research Council’s 2020 Researcher of the Year for her work on the information environment in elections and referendums, as well as deliberation in public spaces. She is an associate professor at DCU and director of the FuJo research institute.