ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

How to Battle Misinformation on Social Media Effectively

Ignore it.

Fighting Fake News: A woman typing on a laptop next to a stethoscope.
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

How many times have I felt the responsibility as a medical doctor, as a scientist, to interject in a discussion — either face to face or on social media — and attempt to set the facts straight? How many times have I tried to convince vocal proponents of ridiculous theories and alternative facts, like homeopathy’s water memory, the flatness of our planet or the current set of viral fake news, that they are (to be a little blunt) spouting nonsense? Too many to count.

We all know of course that uncontrollable spread of fake news has become a persistent problem in the age of the internet and social media. A problem that ramps up during any kind of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has naturally been no exception, giving the opportunity for oversimplifications, click-bait and outright lies to thrive and spread like wildfire across the internet and beyond. We have seen all kinds of unsupported or downright ridiculous claims about CoViD-19 make the rounds on social media, the laughable but dangerous 10 second hold-your-breath coronavirus test being a prime example.

Social media regulation

One of the most controversial recent pieces of fake news, however, has come from none other than the President of the United States. In the now infamous tweet, he warns about the “fraudulent” prospect of expanding voting by mail in the coming US elections, at a time when crowding in station polls would put many people’s lives at risk. The truth is of course quite different.

Spreading this type of blatant, unapologetic and self-serving lies is certainly nothing new for Mr. Trump, but Twitter’s reaction made them the first to be officially and openly fact-checked by the social media giant.

Was this a good move on Twitter’s part? I’ve been asking myself this question in terms of the continuous fight against fake news. Will this be a first step towards a distribution of more reliable news and facts by social media, or just another way to divide the public? Because it seems to me that, no matter what we do, people will usually choose to believe what they want.

It applies to all of us. Regardless of how much we try to focus on data and facts, our feelings and preexisting beliefs weigh heavy on our decision-making and our understanding of the complex world we live in. But facts still matter, right? Sadly, facts seem to matter only occasionally to many people.

Do the facts agree with the politician you like or with your fears about Big Pharma? Good. Otherwise they cannot be facts.

This monumental twitter move could therefore backfire royally and only give Trump-supporters more reasons to rally around their great President, claiming that the world is against them, the system rigged. Time will tell, but in any case, I wouldn’t count on social media regulations giving the definitive solution to this growing problem.

In any case, I’ve wanted to do my part for a long time. But lately I’ve been thinking…

A personal struggle

How many times have I felt the responsibility to run face-first into this wall of self-confirming beliefs… with essentially zero effect? Practically every time, to my deep disappointment, I’ve failed to convince anyone who has already decided what the simple truth is. Failed to make them see that there is no basis to what they’re claiming or at least to budge a little. Often quite the opposite in fact. They become more persistent in their beliefs, doubling down on the absurdities, the inconsistencies and the generous oversimplifications.

This has eventually led me to all but abandon these efforts. Face to face, I no longer aspire to change the mind of any single person on such controversial topics. The discussions only get heated and typically end up nowhere, besides yelling and arguing. When it comes to public social media discussions however, I’ve seen real merit in arguing for scientific, evidence-based facts.

Not hoping to convince any passionate conspiracy theorists but presenting a compelling set of counter-arguments to stand beside such outrageous claims. To give more casual readers the chance to critically think and decide what makes more sense. I’ve argued for example against homeopathy, anti-vaxxers and most recently those who expressed their worry about the coronavirus through panic-driven fear mongering about their country’s strategy.

Whatever the subject, I try to leave a window of uncertainty open, because being 100% sure about anything scientific — and much less about the future— is quite close to being delusional. This has usually been interpreted as proof of the invalidity of my reasoning, yet I refuse to use the cheap practice of omitting the details and uncertainties to make my point more convincing. As much as I can anyway. I’m only human.

Stoking the flames through social media

Alas, I have gradually come to realize how wrong I’ve been. My public social media efforts to defend the facts has not only been ineffective against the persistent proponents of baseless claims, but it has even helped those claims spread even more. That’s because there are two important aspects on social media that change everything compared to discussions in person.

The first one is the social media news feed and the associated algorithm. To put it simply, it doesn’t matter how loud you shout or how inherently interesting and important your views are on the platform, it only matters how much engagement they generate. A post that gets few likes, retweets and comments will be shown to much fewer people, because more engaging content is prioritized, being expected to attract more attention and further engagement. As it happens, controversial content — factually accurate or not — typically fits that description and generates the most reactions, both positive and negative.

The fact that passionate disagreements spark in the comments helps such posts even more. Social media posts with “alternative facts” tend to have that exact effect; passionate responses are provoked from people like me who want to dispute them, as well as from sworn defenders of barely supported but firmly held beliefs. These heated discussions make the algorithm push indiscriminately, along with possibly harmless stuff, demonstrably false claims at the top of everyone’s social media feeds.

Remember, the goal is not to spread actual news or important facts, only to keep your attention for as long as possible — no matter the cost.

Had everyone been paying attention, reading trough such discussions and fact-checked some outrageous claims here and there, this wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the majority of people give a news story or scientific claim very little of their attention, often not reading past the headline, before commenting or sharing. Even if they do, we’ve seen that the headline can affect one’s long-term understanding of a story, more than the actual content.

Personally, about a month ago, I experienced what a provocative headline can do, regardless of the content. When I posted my follow-up article on Sweden’s coronavirus strategy, proclaiming in the title that it was working, I got a flood of angry reactions and my post was taken down by the administrators of a covid-19 group for Swedish doctors. In the article itself, I explain that the country has actually failed in some respects, but that didn’t seem to matter to those who only read the title. I reposted it the next day with a more neutral title, content unchanged. Barely anyone got angry or upset. Plus, much fewer people cared to read it or comment on the post.

See, that’s what happens. Never mind the comments and intense discussions below a false claim on social media, the first sentence is what counts in many people’s minds. Easy to swallow, understand, remember and reproduce. Simplistic headlines and fake news often fit this description and are thus easiest to spread. For many seeing a circulating claim again and again, this is enough to make it automatically true in their minds. And so, the fight against fake news is in a sense lost as soon as they have gone viral. Or even sooner.

In other words, what people like me do when we step up to dispute such claims on social media, results to more pairs of eyes seeing them. Those who have already decided on the matter at hand are probably not going to be swayed anyway. But those who are uncertain and not especially interested in delving deeper into the intricacies of a story, those whose opinion is most likely to be affected, will typically not even get to the heated discussion in the comments. The post and headline have done most of the job by themselves. And we only helped them spread.

Does ignoring mean doing nothing?

I would therefore argue to leave such posts and their ridiculous claims alone. Ignore them. The less you try to disprove them, the less people will see and be affected by them. For most of them, your commenting won’t make a difference anyway. But I don’t mean you should give up on the fight against fake news. There are just better and more effective ways to do that.

One option is, instead of exhausting yourself in a bottomless discussion with someone that will never really hear you, to instead write a piece of your own; a more extensive social media post or an in-depth article. This way, you can tackle anything you consider important and give your unique — and hopefully informed — view on the matter.

If you don’t have that much time and want to focus more on reliable sources, I suggest taking a look at a few fact-checking websites. A simple googling and looking through to the second and third page will also likely give some reliable search results. This will give you a quick but deep dive into the facts or fakes news in question.

You are of course more likely to find results for a claim that has started going viral or is already widely circulating. But this way, you can refute a claim much more reliably. Here is an example of a claim I checked recently, which turned out to be true, but the context and facts around it make the scientist sound much less reliable that the one-sentence claim would suggest. Because truth is rarely black and white.

Then, all you have to do is post your own or the fact-checking piece on various platforms and do your best to spark discussion among your friends, colleagues and family. Give the algorithm less reasons to promote false claims and draw attention to meaningfull discussions based on facts.

That’s what I’ve started doing and I am glad to see a mostly positive response. And maybe most importantly, my nerves have calmed down significantly, now that I am steering clear of fruitless toxic discussions on social media.

I encourage you to do the same.

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