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Misinformation, disinformation and infodemics

The Bottom Line

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, people began to use the term ‘infodemic’ to capture the parallel between the rapid spread of the virus and the rapid spread of misinformation.
  • The Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges identified 10 possible response types to misinformation, ranging from monitoring and fact-checking, educational, technical and algorithmic, economic, or legislative responses.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people began to use the term ‘infodemic’ to capture the parallel between the rapid spread of the virus and the rapid spread of misinformation about both COVID-19 and measures to respond to the pandemic.

The terms misinformation and disinformation are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Misinformation is false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead. On the other hand, disinformation is the intentional spreading of misinformation. For instance, we often see political opponents, companies, or foreign governments engaging in disinformation campaigns to achieve a specific goal or undermine trust in their opponents. It is often difficult to determine the underlying intent and thus, the term misinformation may be used more frequently. While misinformation has been with us for centuries, the internet has transformed its scale, drivers and consequences, as well as possible responses to it.

In 2022, the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges examined possible response types to misinformation.(1) The Evidence Commission identified 10 possible responses:

1. Monitoring and fact-checking
This type of response includes monitoring and exposing misinformation (for example, debunked claims) and fact-checking new claims with we increasingly see in news media.

2. Credibility labeling
This type of response includes tools to verify information content, web-content indicators, pointing to credible evidence sources, and adding credibility labels to information sources.

3. Educational
This type of response includes increasing media and information literacy among the public (for example, critical-thinking skills and skills to verify the credibility of resources on the internet), as well as journalists’ information literacy.

4. Curatorial
This response type includes pointing the public to official credible sources of evidence-based information, and can be used by news media, social media, messaging and search platforms.

5. Technical and algorithmic
This type of response is increasingly discussed in relation to the work of Big Tech companies (for example, Google, Facebook and others). It covers a spectrum from human learning to machine learning and other artificial-intelligence approaches to identify misinformation, provide additional context, and limit spread the spread of misinformation.

6. Counter-misinformation campaigns
This type of response includes specialized units to develop counter-narratives to challenge misinformation and mobilizing online communities to spread high-quality evidence.

7. Normative
This type of response includes public condemnations of acts of misinformation (from public figures, such as policymakers, professionals, and community leaders) and recommendations to address them.

8. Economic
This type of response is also discuss in relation to the work of Big Tech companies. It includes advertising bans (for example, ads promoting miracle remedies against COVID-19), and other approaches to remove incentives for misinformation.

9. Legislative and other policy
This type of response includes criminalizing acts of misinformation, directing internet communication companies to take down content, and providing material support for credible information sources

10. Investigative
This type of response includes strategies to investigate who starts the misinformation, the degree and means of spread, the money involved, and the affected communities. This response can help to inform legislative and other responses.

Our times may seem a bit confusing with the multiplication of information sources, health and social crises, as well as strong political polarization. We are constantly bombarded with information and it becomes difficult to distinguish credible information from misleading or false information. However, as the Evidence Commission points out, it is possible to act locally and globally to counter misinformation.


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References

  1. Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges. The Evidence Commission report: A wake-up call and path forward for decision-makers, evidence intermediaries, and impact-oriented evidence producers. Hamilton: McMaster Health Forum, 2022.

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