06 Sep Getting off the misinformation train
Social media is eroding the idea of truth and the credibility of trusted sources, how do you tell the facts apart from the lies?
By Aasia Fredericks
Twitter was supposed to kill journalism, and the same was supposed to be true for Clubhouse and Facebook before it. The truth is that giving brands and individuals equal access to public platforms only creates chaos, but humans will still assemble a list of credible sources of information on the topics that they’re interested in.
Most of us don’t have time to get a full view of developing stories and will need someone to do it for us. But what if that person is pushing an agenda? How do we discern the truth from a convenient interpretation and sidestep misinformation?
Twitter took a few tentative steps in gatekeeping the truth with a test run of a new feature allowing users to flag misleading information about COVID-19 and political elections. The company focuses the bulk of its policies around these firebrand topics and can be seen as admitting defeat by enlisting the help of the public to filter out harmful content.
This isn’t the first such test project, though. Birdwatch – a reddit-styled app feature where users could add a tweet to a list that is audited by other users using up and down voting – was another attempt to bring order to the timeline at the end of 2020.
Other platforms are less proactive and require prodding from governments before taking any action against the spread of misinformation.
Knowing is half the battle
These social media sites are designed with one goal in mind: to keep you on the app for as long as possible. And the algorithms are trained to recognize your interests and serve up more of the content that lets you linger longer. An independent test of TikTok’s recommendations algorithm done by the Wall Street Journal, for example, used bot accounts with different interest profiles and measured the time it took for the feed to get saturated by fringe content.
The algorithm took less than an hour to zero in on each profile and begin a descent into a rabbit hole of feedback loops from the extreme edges of the topics of interest.
Get the facts
Curating your mix of trusted providers should begin with official sources of information. In South Africa the government turned to the science-based medical community for guidance during the pandemic and policies were based on the findings from the World Health Organisation and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Following these accounts and the people who head up these organisations will deliver the best possible official information that has been verified and peer reviewed.
Casting the net outside of COVID-specific information, applying the same formula to other sectors should show similar, trustworthy results.
In a world where you can google information to suit your view. Be mindful of the sites you consume. How many people do they credit? Where is their information coming from?
Not all research material is made equal, and you should fact check some of the source data to get a better idea of the accuracy. Scientific studies are published and retracted daily, meta reviews will survey a range of studies around a particular outcome and summarise those findings. It’s not a perfect system, but it is a great way to shortcut a lot of research.
Try these links to fact check data:
Don’t believe the hype
Following topics online should lead to a statement or quote from the source of the information, or a definitive legal judgement on an issue. The discussions around the fact will be based on assumptions and cause more confusion and harm. Not all breaking new stories should be called that. Instead, wait for good journalists who investigate and interrogate the data and comments being made. Even then you will find opposing views and then you can make an informed decision.
Always remember that just because it is on the internet and the source looks legit, doesn’t make the information true.
Insights agencies like Mirror Mirror Africa are uniquely positioned to deliver comprehensive reports and data sets to help your next project avoid spreading are participating in false messaging.
About the author:Aasia Fredericks is Operations Manager and Senior Analyst at Mirror Mirror Africa. The strategic heart of the team has an innate understanding of digital best practice which was demonstrated in her time as Digital Director at one of South Africa’s most prestigious PR and communications firms. With a skill set that straddles the B2B and B2C realms, this marketing specialist is dedicated to implementing tactics that deliver authentic and meaningful value to clients, specialists and creatives.