April 29, 2020

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University’s Journalism School and a leading researcher on the media and tech platforms.This conversation is adapted from an April 17 discussion between Schiffrin and Bell that is part of a planned conference on women and social media to be held at SIPA on December 10 and 11. The conference was organized by Schiffrin and Karolina Koc-Michalska from France’s Audencia Business School.

Anya Schiffrin: Every day we read about quack cures, our president saying things that are just not true, Russian and Chinese misinformation campaigns online, [and more]. What the heck is going on out there? Who is spreading false information about Covid-19 and why are they doing it?

Emily Bell: There are several categories of people spreading mis- and disinformation online about Covid. Americans think about state actors such as Russia and China, which is spreading lots of disinformation, but the daily U.S. presidential White House briefing on Coronavirus has become a key source of contestable misinformation, telling us all sorts of things which are not based in science.

Then there are all the fake “cures” being sold online. Since early March, something like 120,000 domains have been set up with key words such as coronavirus and Covid-19. Some are well-intentioned and contain good information, but quite a lot are just making money from people's anxiety during a crisis. Let’s not forget that Alex Jones’s Infowars makes all his money from going on YouTube and selling vitamin supplements. So there's an awful lot of money to be made in making people fear for their health and telling them that all sorts of things will boost their immune system.

Then there are high-profile conspiracy theories which serve a certain agenda. In the UK there was a conspiracy theory that 5G masts are spreading the pandemic or are part of some international plot to help mask the effects of radio waves [because] the masts are developed often with Chinese technology companies like Huawei. It’s completely ridiculous—none of this is based in science—but it became so widespread in the UK that several towers were vandalized. Once again we see that things which seem to be crackpot, baseless ideas on the internet actually spill out into real life and cause real harm.

Or take the conspiracy theories about Bill Gates. His long term support of vaccination is being conflated with bizarre, politicized theories about him wanting to be involved in population control or wanting to insert chips into the general population so that he can track people.

Another area of misinformation which can have big effects is when official information is not settled and/or opinions change over time. One example is the question of whether or not to wear a mask. The Chinese government has always advised its population to wear masks. We Americans were advised for a certain amount of time that there was no point in having a mask because it wouldn’t do anything to protect you or it wouldn’t be fitted properly, etc. Now, of course, we’re told not to leave the house without a mask.

These are areas essential for controlling a pandemic where our current frameworks and misinformation don't work very well. To get people to change their behaviors you need consistent messaging, which is difficult when outcomes and facts aren’t completely established or agreed on. This comes up too in discussions about scientific surveys and herd immunity.

There was a really great article in Nature in October 2018 by Professor Heidi Larson, and she says the single biggest problem is misinformation that misrepresents or distorts the science behind epidemics. It’s often bad ideas about science. It is people saying things like, “if you hold your breath, it tests whether or not you have Coronavirus” or “if you have a dry cough and you have a fever, then you have Coronavirus. But if you don’t you are probably ok.” This was circulated widely as a way to tell if you had the virus, leaving out asymptomatic cases

How are technology companies’ efforts to fix the problem now different from all they’ve said in the past?

What they're doing now, which they haven’t done much before, is coordinating between platforms. For example, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram took down posts from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in which he ridiculed the concept of social distancing and showed him in the street, shaking hands with people practicing unsafe proximity. Getting all the platforms to actually take those posts down is an enormous change.

The fact that both Twitter and Facebook took the same view of Bolsonaro’s tweets and posts is the outcome of a decision made early on in this situation between a number of platforms including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Reddit.

They are aggressively marking and taking down material, but how much they're doing is very hard to determine, not least because they don't even really tell their own third-party fact checking network about how much has been deleted. We do occasionally get told that there have been x thousand pages or accounts removed, which, for instance, have been trying to sell masks. So that was something that happened early on, Facebook saying it’s not going to allow anybody to advertise masks on their platform. I don't know what they're going to do now that we will actually have to buy masks.

The second thing that they've been doing is upranking quality information. Now, when you search for Coronavirus, every platform has a flag that leads you to official information.

That in itself raises questions. Do you point to the CDC? Or do you point to the World Health Organization? Do you point to both? Google has made a big effort to get rid of rogue search queries which might throw up misleading headlines. Facebook has introduced something called a news tab, which is the first time it's actually curated news organizations into that tab. The problem with that is that it's only available to a certain number of accounts in the [United] States and it only has a small team on it, so it’s mostly algorithmically ranked.

Coronavirus has changed the temperature of the conversation within [Facebook].... Mark Zuckerberg was very keen to be even handed with the left and the right in terms of how Facebook treated news sources. It was largely dressed up in terms of free speech and all those things but it was really a pragmatic move about his own position in terms of potential regulation. Those conversations [about getting involved vs. hanging back] have been totally swept aside.

This is a wakeup call, and not just for Facebook, which has been grappling with these issues for some time. It's also a wakeup call, in a way, for mainstream journalism. Even though people are paying a great deal of attention to mainstream news, the control of that and how we consume it, has pretty much switched. In the last 10 years, it's pretty much switched to the Facebooks and the Googles of this world.

Looking to the long term, what needs to be done? I write about what I call the “demand-side” and the “supply-side” solutions. Among the former are media literacy education and efforts to build trust in the media, while the latter include actions like takedowns, downranking, counterspeech, and the provisioning of good information to counteract low-quality information. I think you’re talking more now about the importance of supplying quality information.

Many disaffected communities are used to having journalism done to them and they are the most vulnerable when it comes to being exposed to misinformation. I really hope we find a way of funding alternative types of journalistic institutions, which allow us to have real, meaningful presence—and sustainable careers—in those communities, from those communities, and for those communities. You won't get that from the current commercial environment. That lack of representation at the ground level has created problems right the way up the supply chain and shows up in democratic failure as well.

Watch the Conversation

Mis/Disinformation War in a time of COVID-19