Media and Misinformation in the Time of Covid-19
In an early briefing in February of this year, the World Health Organisation described the proliferation of misinformation about the coronavirus as an ‘infodemic’. According to its Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, such material was spreading more quickly and easily than the virus itself. The WHO duly appointed a team of ‘myth-busters’ to work with social media companies to seek out and correct widely circulated rumours, hoaxes and other unfounded advice. Yet to what extent is the crisis being amplified by misinformation? Where is that misinformation coming from, and what might be done to challenge it?
In many respects, the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified and brought into sharper focus underlying problems that have been apparent for many years. It has revealed stark health inequalities – most notably to do with ‘race’ – that largely mirror widening inequalities more generally. It has graphically demonstrated the effects of a decade of austerity, targeted particularly at the poor, and the creeping privatisation of health and welfare services. As an older person, it has come as a shock to discover that I am regarded as somehow expendable – that, in the reported opinion of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings, the primary need was ‘to protect the economy’, and that if some elderly people were to die as a result, well, that was just ‘too bad’.
At every turn, the UK government’s handling of the crisis has been shockingly incompetent. The country went into lockdown too late, despite very clear warnings, and it is now coming out of lockdown too early: as I write, Boris Johnson is gleefully encouraging us to run to the shops, while growing numbers of experts are warning about the inevitability of a second wave of infections. The UK now has the second-highest death toll per head of population in the world. International readers of this blog who’ve expressed their bewilderment and sorrow over Brexit are probably shaking their heads in disbelief. Britain has gone from being an international laughing stock to a global shame.
In the words of Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, the UK’s leading medical journal, the government’s response to the crisis has been ‘the greatest science policy failure in a generation’. The reasons for this failure are not merely to do with the kind of jolly, bumbling confusion we have come to expect of Johnson: they reflect a level of irresponsibility and disregard of people’s welfare that has directly caused tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.
If the crisis has revealed and amplified many broader trends, this has also been the case in relation to media and information. The ‘infodemic’ – if such it can be called – didn’t start here. It is not confined to social media, or even to media more broadly: it is something in which governments themselves are active participants, and indeed perpetrators.
The problem here is much broader than a matter of ‘fake news’, or a few crazed conspiracy theorists taking to Twitter. And while ‘myth-busting’ is certainly necessary and useful, it will take more than an army of fact-checkers to address the scale of the challenge. On the contrary, the crisis brings into focus a set of much broader problems to do with the state of public knowledge – problems that are not just to do with ‘bad media’, but with the political system itself. And in the process, it presents some far-reaching challenges for those of us who are concerned with media literacy and media education.
Beyond ‘fake news’
This is not to say that ‘fake news’ has been an insignificant factor here. A recent edition of the excellent BBC World Service series Trending drew attention to some of the more bizarre forms of misinformation that have been circulating, and their human cost. There are also some extensive listings and databases of such stories online. For example, there have been claims that the virus can be cured or prevented by eating garlic, drinking copious amounts of warm water or alcohol or cow’s urine, avoiding ice cream, taking hot baths, or ingesting colloidal silver, bicarbonate of soda or vitamin D.
While some of these claims have been ridiculed and denied by experts and government officials, others – such as the claim that the virus might be cured by injecting disinfectant, or by taking malaria medication – have been endorsed and disseminated by political leaders, most notably Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. In some instances (as reported in this World Service documentary), this has resulted in poisoning: in Iran, a rise in alcohol poisoning followed claims that this would prevent infection, and in parts of the US, people have been hospitalised after drinking household bleach.
Other such stories relate to pre-existing conspiracy theories. For example, there have been widely circulated claims that the virus has been caused by various human actors – from the Chinese or US governments, to Muslims, to Bill Gates (this line of argument is popularly called ‘the Plandemic’). Others suggest that it is a deliberate or accidental result of the dissemination of 5G wireless technology; or alternatively that the whole thing is a hoax being perpetrated in order to manipulate people. In some instances, such claims have provoked public demonstrations and arson attacks on phone masts. In line with ‘anti-vaxxer’ conspiracy theories, some people are already saying that they will refuse to take a vaccine if one becomes available.
Some reputable sources – ranging from fact-checking organisations through to the journal Nature – have sought to refute such claims; but in doing so, there is a risk of giving them greater publicity, and reinforcing conspiracists’ claims about a ‘cover-up’ (as the comments on the Nature video on YouTube clearly indicate). Twitter’s decision to remove some examples of misinformation, and Facebook’s labelling of several of Trump’s posts as false, make a striking contrast with these companies’ usual rhetoric about ‘free speech’ – but here again, there is a risk of them attracting greater attention as a result.
So ‘fake news’ has undoubtedly been an important issue here, and one with potentially life-threatening consequences. But to present the issue in terms of facts-versus-falsehoods is to oversimplify the problems at stake.
The margins and the mainstream
One of the limitations of this approach to so-called ‘fake news’ is that it sets up a binary distinction between reliable and unreliable sources. In this account, unreliable sources are mostly found online, while reliable ones are found in established ‘legacy’ media like newspapers and public broadcasting. Unreliable sources are misguided individuals who thoughtlessly share what they see, or small groups (or evil foreign governments) with nefarious intentions or other political axes to grind; while reliable sources are, of course, professional journalists who can be implicitly trusted to tell the truth.
Needless to say, this distinction is itself promoted by these very same established media, whose profitability and very survival looks increasingly threatened. Ironically, those on the margins also often present themselves as the ‘truth tellers’, uncovering the facts that have been systematically hidden by The Powers That Be – and for some readers, this stance has a powerful emotional appeal.
The lock-down has left all of us significantly more dependent upon media. Social media companies have mostly profited from the pandemic, although older media have been hit by the collapse in advertising revenue. UK newspapers have benefited from a government bail-out in the form of advertising and sponsored content, mostly telling happy stories about how well everything is going – which in turn makes them less likely to bite the hand that feeds.
At least in the UK, it’s hard to feel positive about the general quality of press coverage. Even in the so-called ‘serious’ papers, columnists are still required to meet their weekly word targets, even in the absence of much to write about. There has been a profusion of desperate, tiresome stories about ‘what I’m doing in lockdown’, as well as a plethora of half-baked ‘opinion’, mostly based on a total lack of specialist knowledge. The coronavirus seems to have become the focus for just about every grand fantasy, from doom-laden dystopia to optimistic imagining; and this is now feeding into equally empty speculations about what will life be like after the virus.
Meanwhile, the BBC news often seems to function as a kind of mouthpiece or cheerleader for the government. Its chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg has frequently operated as a kind of government rebuttal machine, quoting unnamed ‘sources in Downing Street’. By contrast, the BBC was extremely quick to discipline Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis for her summary of the controversy around Dominic Cummings’ flouting of the lockdown rules (of which more in my next post).
Of course, this may well reflect the BBC’s anxiety about the government’s declared interest in abolishing the license fee, and perhaps in eventually privatising it. Yet on several occasions, the BBC has been curiously reluctant to hold politicians to account. It is certainly striking that two of the most consistently challenging journalists during the pandemic have been found on commercial media, in the form of ITV’s breakfast TV host Piers Morgan and LBC’s James O’Brien, neither of whom could be reasonably described as ‘left-wing’.
The consequences of this for audiences are debatable: some UK surveys find that trust in established media has remained more or less steady, while others point to a precipitous decline, especially among ‘left-leaning’ voters (which is hardly surprising given the consistent right-wing bias in reporting over the past few years).
For established media, focusing attention on more obviously inaccurate forms of misinformation makes for an easy call, while also absolving them of responsibility. Meanwhile, the grand idea of the ‘infodemic’ tends to flatten out the differences between the many and various types of information (and misinformation) that are circulating. In the process, it may deflect attention from broader and more difficult questions that need to be asked about all forms of media representation.
The place of media (and information) literacy
Back in 2016, media or digital literacy was frequently proposed as a kind of band-aid response to the discovery of so-called ‘fake news’. I had my say about this at the time, but it’s striking to note how this theme has taken on a new urgency during the pandemic. For example, the UK media regulator Ofcom is providing media literacy resources to help people debunk false claims and misconceptions, as are organisations like the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the European Association for the Education of Adults, and numerous other media educators and academics. The web is positively overflowing with top tips and infographics on ‘spotting fake news’ about the coronavirus.
For the most part, the advice that’s offered here is fairly obvious. Readers are urged to check multiple sources, cross-refer to ‘reputable’ or ‘accredited’ sites, trace where claims originate, analyse the use of language and images, take care before sharing, and so on. Yet while such advice is mostly very sensible, it’s unlikely that most ordinary users will integrate these kinds of strategies into their everyday use of online media. Psychological research suggests that even intelligent people are inclined to fall for lies and misinformation; and while this is partly to do with how information is presented, and the sheer quantity of material we have to process, it’s also a result of ‘cognitive miserliness’ – we don’t always have the time, or make the effort, to ask the necessary questions. Furthermore, in the case of social media, the business model incentivises us to share, and we often do this without thinking more carefully.
It’s much too easy to assume that, with the help of a few smart techniques, we can simply replace falsehoods with truth. We need to address why it is that people might be disposed to believe such apparent misinformation in the first place. It’s tempting to put this down to sheer stupidity, and in some cases that might be correct. But the appeal of conspiracy theories can also be a result of how they speak to a sense of powerlessness – and an abiding suspicion that those in power are somehow attempting to deceive or mislead people for their own devious purposes. We might choose to dismiss this as merely ‘paranoid’, but it is symptomatic of a much more widespread mood in the current political climate.
Where people choose to place their trust, and why they do so, is far from a wholly rational matter – or indeed a matter of access to ‘information’ (or the lack of it). Support for right-wing populist leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson persists despite their repeated demonstrations of incompetence and mendacity: they are believed in preference to accredited experts, not least because they are very good at telling people what they want to hear.
In this situation, teaching resilience to misinformation is an exceptionally difficult task. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the notion of ‘information literacy’: UNESCO in particular now talks about Media and Information Literacy. ‘MIL’, as it’s often called, usefully extends the field of media education, and reinforces its central relevance to other aspects of the school curriculum.
However, the notion of ‘information’ is problematic, especially if we contrast it with apparent opposites like ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. There’s a danger in assuming that information is merely a neutral representation of the world, and that it is inherently A Good Thing – and that with the right educational strategies, we can simply replace fakes with facts.
By contrast, media education provides a much more systematic and rigorous approach: it draws attention to how all information is constructed, selected and packaged; it encourages us to be sceptical about all sources of information, and to question the motivations of those who purvey it; and it explores how the gathering and use of information relate to social, cultural and political power. This is about much more than ‘spotting fake news’.
Yet particularly in the current context, we need an even wider view, which takes us beyond the media themselves. We need to examine how the media are implicated in broader processes, and especially in the operations of government. This is the theme I’ll take up in the second of these posts, coming shortly…