The Misinformation Medic

Diagnosing the difference between misinformation and the real thing

In a world gripped by a pandemic where anxiety, grief and uncertainty are rife, how can we be sure what’s true? How do we know who to trust? Where do we turn for guidance?

The Misinformation Medic

These are the questions that drive engagement with millions of pieces of information that bounce around the world, in digital, print, audio and visual form. At the height of confusion, we seek out certainty. In moments of despondency, we look for reassurance. Often, what we find amid this ceaseless stream of information, may be comfort, but there are no guarantees that it’s true or accurate or even trustworthy. In fact, let’s call it disinformation or misinformation. The good news amid this sea of conflicted, contentious and challenging information is that there is a digital doctor who may be able to help. And if the digital doctor can’t provide a solution, it has a very clear view of the diagnosis.

Welcome to the website The Misinformation Medic, produced by international social impact agency Purpose, for Responsible Technology Australia. It is designed to provide a sceptical filter to the vast store of COVID-19-related information that is seemingly intent in finding its unerring way into our social media and news feeds.

Chris Cooper, Purpose’s campaigns director, knows only too well how it all plays out in normal time. Now, in the context of COVID-19 the misinformation has jumped the fence, from the fringes and into the mainstream and Chris found himself dealing with unverified information being circulated on his family’s WhatsApp group. Young and old family members were sending around material with the best of intentions, but in some instances, the information was unreliable.

Many Australians find themselves not only consuming such dubious material but also believing it. A recent Essential poll found 39 per cent of Australians believed the COVID-19 virus was engineered and released from a laboratory in Wuhan. The poll also found 13 per cent of respondents thought Microsoft Founder and philanthropist Bill Gates played a role in the creation and spread of the virus. The proliferation of conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation has been a feature of the pandemic. And that’s where the Misinformation Medic comes in.

“For us, the approach to misinformation is where the spotlight needs to focus on the social media platforms and the way they’re built and the way their business model amplifies and enables misinformation in an unprecedented way,’’ Chris explains.

“It’s the way social media is designed – it throws this content in amid photos of your kids, your family and it primes you to be less critical while you’re in scroll mode- so that was a kind of primary focus for us.’’

There is no one answer to all of this, no silver bullet, and most certainly no way to revert to a previous time, before the arrival of social media. The first basic steps are to help consumers become more media and digitally literate, but also for the social media platforms taking more responsibility, both in a design sense (the addictive design with ‘frictionless’ scrolling) and in a content sense, for what they circulate.

“Facebook…is designed to push the content that is most engaging, which does tend to – not exclusively – lean in to the more outrageous, sensational conspiratorial, [and] that is scratching at the worst sides of our behaviour,’’ Chris explains. “The platforms aren’t designed to foster the best in us – they are designed to exploit some of the worst of us.

One of the more dangerous consequences of exposure to such material is that it creates “a false consensus’’ – that there are significantly more people, for example, who believe a conspiracy theory than the small numbers who do actually embrace it.

Chris Cooper, Purpose's Campaigns Director

Chris acknowledges that there is a broader context at work, before the arrival of the pandemic, and it is the declining public trust in society’s key institutions, including government and media. And nowadays, there are efficient ways for that mistrust to create an audience. Responsible Technology Australia is one of the organisations focussing on the issue, aiming to bring a range of views together to tackle the social harms caused by exploitative data practices.

“What is different now is that we’ve never had our online environments so heavily curated and personalised and individualised,’’ Chris explains. “Once you start to walk down those areas, your online experience quickly becomes engulfed in that [material]. You need to be able to break people out of that and that can only be done by Facebook and Google and in saying that, that’s a job for regulation and government regulation or some form of that.’’

The Misinformation Medic provides a ‘health check’’ and a “first aid kit’’ to help navigate the “division, anxiety and fear’’ generated by what it calls the social media misinformation pandemic.

“The Medic is not meant to be a doctor telling you what to do but it’s meaning is that we can diagnose a problem and bring some solutions,’’ Chris says, “It leaves the agency in the hands of the user because we didn’t want to be: ‘This is what you need to believe.’’’

But it also advocates for change, by establishing a “Live List’ of the most viral COVID-19 content that health experts can respond to quickly. The second call to action is for a world-first “Circuit Breaker that proposes a function that identifies COVID-19 material that is starting to go viral but stops the algorithm from distributing the material until it can be verified.

Chris believes the template behind Misinformation Medic offers opportunities to advocate for a range of causes post-COVID-19.

“We approach our work through four types of change, whether that’s shifting awareness, perception, changing behaviour, changing policy, changing infrastructure,’’ he says.

“And this is the kind of tool we can use to mobilise support around a type of change and that can be using this kind of tool to advocate for a piece of policy or about advocating for a behaviour change which in this case is relevant – people need to stop sharing and engaging with stuff that’s blatantly false and there’s a 1000 different ways that the Medic or something like it could be used to advocate for a range of changes that can be lead to addressing the issue of misinformation,’’ Chris says.

In the meantime, take your temperature with The Misinformation Medic here, and visit Responsible Technology here.

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