Fighting fake news in the COVID-19 era

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated “infodemic” have highlighted how the spread of fake news and misinformation online – even if shared without malicious intent – can weaken global public health efforts, contribute to social unrest and lead to real-life harms or even death.

Researchers from La Trobe University today published a landmark report detailing the harm caused by online misinformation, how it is being regulated in some countries, and recommending how it might be tackled.

Lead researcher, La Trobe political science and journalism expert Associate Professor Andrea Carson, said the report aims to assist governments, authorities, and digital platforms manage this complex and challenging issue.

“Our report, Fighting Fake News*, reveals the global spread of online misinformation has the potential to erode foundational elements of modern civilisation across much of the developed and developing world, and as such, efforts to tackle the issue require coordination and cooperation between key players,” Associate Professor Carson said.

Based on expert interviews with journalists, academics, digital platform providers, human rights activists and others, the report shows that two early adopters of anti-fake news laws – Indonesia and Singapore – have used new laws to silence critics accused of spreading fake news.

“Although nations like Singapore and Indonesia are not classed as liberal democracies, they remind us that, in regulating fake news, we must be alert to the potential for any new anti-misinformation laws and regulations to be misused by governments to undermine freedom of speech and the media.”

The report comes as Australia’s digital industry organisation – DIGI – prepares to release a voluntary code of practice to counter online disinformation.

Associate Professor Carson said misinformation swirling about COVID-19, its vaccines, stories of disinfectants as treatment, and false claims about it being spread by 5G mobile phone networks, all had the potential to endanger the public and had been linked to deaths overseas.

Yet reining in online misinformation was a tough, multi-layered problem that defied simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.

“As misinformation is a widely shared problem, its mitigation and management must be a widely shared responsibility for all concerned – from technology companies, governments, mainstream media and even us, the online users,” Associate Professor Carson said.

“Platforms need to provide greater transparency about the scale of misinformation on their digital spaces, increase promotion of existing measures to improve media literacy amongst users, and work more cooperatively with one another to share intelligence about emerging disinformation campaigns to stem their viral spread.”

“COVID-19 is occurring at a time when technology and social media are being used on a mass scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected. At the same time fake news, misinformation and disinformation are undermining that work.”

* This has been an independent research project, funded by Facebook Inc (based in Menlo Park, US). It reflects the views of the authors and should not be taken to reflect the views of Facebook. Ethics approval to undertake the research interviews was granted through La Trobe University, Australia.

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