Fighting the creators and spreaders of untruths online

29 Nov 2022 10:50h - 12:20h

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How to measure something for which there are no clear and universally agreed definitions? This question was brought up repeatedly during the workshop, revealing the numerous challenges arising from the multitude of definitions and approaches to fighting misinformation. 

To address this challenge, the OECD  produced a taxonomy and collection of false and misleading content online. The authors identified five different types of ‘untruths’ with corresponding definitions that can be differentiated along two main axes:  

  1. the intent or not of the information disseminated to cause harm
  2. the degree of fabrication 

The authors aspire to use the taxonomy to develop cross-country comparable indicators to tackle the challenge of misinformation.

The speakers outlined some of the major challenges faced by fact-checkers, especially from developing and non-Anglophone countries:

  • The lack of access to information, as well as timely and credible information 
  • The lack of awareness of the problem and the low literacy rate of the public 
  • The visibility of fact-checkers is low, and their reach is questionable  
  • The lack of attention from big-tech companies and social media platforms in terms of resource allocation, inclusivity for local fact-checkers and transparency
  • Related to the latter is the sustainability of small and local start-ups and fact-checking initiatives because they rely on funding and donations from other organisations
  • Probably the most neglected issue is the mental health and well-being of the fact-checkers who face a lot of toxic and violent content they normally would not have faced. 

Speakers also highlighted the need to go beyond the binary ideas of truth and focus on media manipulation, as a certain piece of information can be true per se, but used in the wrong context to inflict harm or mislead users. Therefore, a better approach would be to point people to the cues used to produce misinformation more generally and help them calibrate their judgments of certain information.  

This approach can tackle another important challenge, which is the discrepancy between the time required to produce misinformation and the time needed for detailed fact-checking. This is where the so-called pre-bunking approach comes forward, through a process known as psychological inoculation. The analogy was made with a regular vaccine where people are injected with a weakened dose of a virus to trigger antibody production and build resistance to future infections. In the case of fighting misinformation epidemics, people can be exposed to weakened doses of misinformation or disinformation techniques in order to develop cognitive antibodies over time. An underlying challenge, however, is translating and adapting those interventions for different cultural contexts.

Other speakers agreed that changing the mindset and the way people perceive those social media platforms and their content produced a major task lying in front of them. 

There is no silver bullet solution to the issue of misinformation. Measures tackling online harm also require a renewed focus on safer product design, shifting responsibility back to the tech sector to put user safety at the centre of product design and development. Also, more and more national jurisdictions are coming together to jointly address the issue of misinformation. For instance, the Australian eSafety has formed a new Global Online Safety Regulators Network together with regulators from the UK, Ireland, and Fiji. 

Finally, it remains a challenge to measure misinformation since it really is a self-assessed phenomenon. To this end, national statistical organisations must continue to explore new means of fully capturing the phenomenon beyond national surveys, such as through innovative applications or gamification. 

By Katarina Bojovic