Guest post by Kate Green

Mis, dis and mal-information has caught the public’s attention over the past few years. Since early 2017 journalists, academics, policy makers and platform providers have been gathering at Misinfocon to understand the challenges and imagine solutions to the problems we face globally around the spread of false information.

I was fortunate enough to attend Misinfocon in London as part of Mozfest’s activities held at the Royal Society of the Arts House. The day-long event was divided into two parts: a morning of lightning presentations that shared academic research, NGO projects and public sector projects to challenge issues around the spread of misinformation; and an afternoon of breakout workshops.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen shared academic research that explored the public’s perception of ‘fake news’. Fake news is most commonly perceived as being ‘poor journalism’, with only a quarter perceiving it as ‘false news’. Secondly, from the people who find their news through social media and online searches, less than half remember the brand of the news that reported the article.

Joan Donovan brought an array of memes to help articulate the impact of advertising on political movements. She outlines how targeted advertising of misinformation and hate speech is used to coordinate real-world action, such as the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017. She gave the audience a provocation; “when a storm comes, we don’t think about how to change the weather, we think about finding shelter. What systems can we build together to prevent the misinformation built by these platforms?”

Farida Vis highlighted the importance of images in post-digital cultures and their positioning in the spread of mis/disinformation. She stressed the importance of the captions that frame images and how they are read. Her research aims to find methods to support critical reading of visual imagery. Her interdisciplinary research has adapted frameworks used in art-history as a tool to support critical image reading. The framework can be found here.

Finally, Seema Yasmin a medical doctor turned public health journalist raised concerns around the impact of misinformation and the trust of information on public health. She shared with us the challenges faced in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak as populations distrusted the information that was given to them as a result of the political climate. Consequently, people in the region ignored the information on Ebola, disbelieving its existence, let alone the risks. Beyond the challenges of trust, Seema raised concerns around the reporting of medical research and the impact on societal behaviours. An example of this was the reporting of the medical paper that explored the relationship between child vaccinations and autism; while the paper did not explicitly conclude a causal relationship, there continues to be a high number of parents who opt out of vaccinating their children. In 2018 a measles outbreak was reported in Texas, resulting in the deaths of 6 unvaccinated individuals.

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Throughout the conference concerns were raised around the unintended consequences in the fight against mis and disinformation. Rights to privacy and free speech were at the core of discussions involving policy; do we move fast to try mitigate risks of misinformation, that may unintentionally undermine other rights? Or should the problem and appropriate solutions be critically examined which will take time, but will aim to be equitable?

How the public perceives and trusts information is central to the discussion of how we try to challenge the issues. The political climate immediately raises a lot of questions around perception: if society does not trust the government or institutions, then why should they believe any information, true or false? Do governments allow for a free press? And how might journalists begin to establish trust, particularly in unstable political climates?

The way in which people search and receive information may indicate a lack of trust in news outlets, or a blanket level of trust across many different sources; how do people assess information’s trustworthiness?

Education is another clear challenge; how do we enable critical thinking in an open and accessible way? Who should receive education? What might this education look like? Farida provides us with one tool that encourages critical thinking, but new challenges arise around time constraints and opportunities for designated time for such exercises.

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In the afternoon I attended the Vaccinating against Misinfodemics workshop that followed on from Seema’s talk. We were invited to review medical research papers and news articles to understand the issues around reporting health research. One factor is that the intended readership of medical papers are other researchers and not typically journalists or the general public; it makes way for the misunderstanding of findings. Another factor is the pressure on journalists to make research newsworthy and a ‘must-read’. We were asked to think of solutions to help streamline the knowledge transfer from researchers to journalists to the public.

Our collective suggestions included:

• Researcher suggestions for journalists e.g. signifying correlation over causation

• Researchers writing journalism-friendly abstracts with key information and recommendations to policy and society.

• However, liability became a topic for discussion if their recommendations have unintended consequences.

• Use of emojis to articulate key parts of the studies, e.g. a mouse emoji for tests not done on humans.

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The event was truly excellent, getting the perspectives of multiple stakeholders… the only complaint, which is barely a complaint at all, is that my head was bursting with information… hopefully all true. I left feeling concerned about the complexities of the challenges we face as a society; however, it is events like these that also give me hope that we are continuing our efforts to find appropriate actions. I look forward to returning next year to see how the conversations have evolved.

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I am Kate Green a PhD candidate at Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham and my research focuses on how online health communities come to share personal health information on contemporary social media platforms. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and an Internet Society 25 Under 25 Awardee. Currently I am a research intern at the Trust and Technology Initiative exploring trust in online health communities.