We need more than media literacy to tackle Covid-19 misinformation
Misinformation runs wild with manipulated stories spreading like wildfire on social media. While misinformation has always been with us, the power with which it spreads across social media platforms is novel. Since the 2016 US election, the appearance of the term in news headlines has increased tenfold.
Four years ago, the focus was on Russian interference in elections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that non-state actors posed a significant threat. Even before the pandemic, some 62% of Irish people worried about what was real and what was fake in their social media feeds, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2020. Given the volumes of Covid-19 misinformation over the past nine months, that percentage will likely be much higher when the 2021 report is released later this year.
Countering vaccine-related misinformation is imperative as the rollout is underway. As part of their fact-checking series, TheJournal.ie has documented several instances of anti-vax content circulating on social media in Ireland, including claims that vaccines will lead to “genetic manipulation” or ” female sterilization”.
The anti-vax movement was well established before the pandemic and seized the crisis as an opportunity to build support for its cause. Those who oppose vaccines have a variety of motives, with some being more persuasive toward science than others. Internationally, some are influenced by ‘alternative medicine’, which distrusts modern medicine, while others are driven by genuine concern for their children and grandchildren. In Ireland, for example, some research found that parents within the HPV vaccine movement were motivated to act because of a perceived lack of satisfactory responses from their own doctors.
Many assume that the antidote to misinformation is relatively simple: increase media literacy. Indeed, research has shown that simply getting people to think about the accuracy of everything they see in their News Feeds will dramatically improve their ability to reject misinformation while reducing the intent to share misinformation.
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We know the best way to spread misinformation is through emotional appeals on personal networks.
As a result, calls are regularly made for the promotion of various types of literacy, including information and science literacy, but especially media literacy. Many countries have provided additional funding for media literacy programs or launched campaigns such as bemediasmart.ie in Ireland. Media literacy activities are often supported by social media platforms with fairly minimal efforts to promote accurate information such as links to the World Health Organization on contested Covid content. As Dr. Eileen Culloty and I argue in a forthcoming book on misinformation and manipulation in digital media, while the effort is worth it and the intentions are benign, it is unfortunately not that simple. to solve.
There is only limited evidence that literacy programs are effective in all cases. Most are aimed at young adults and children and delivered through educational programs. Yet we know that older people often share more misinformation than younger groups. Therefore, it is imperative to address the lifelong literacy needs of older age groups as well, because without this there is a real risk of allowing a generation gap to widen.
Research has shown that media literacy can give people a false sense of confidence in their ability to spot misinformation
There are also clear limits to what literacy in any form can accomplish. Above all, it emphasizes the individual and individual action.
Yet we know that if misinformation is received from our peers or our reactions are emotionally charged, simple individual correction is unlikely to work. This kind of peer-to-peer sharing is particularly insidious and problematic, because we know that the best way to spread misinformation is to appeal to emotions on personal networks. Personal storytelling is particularly difficult to counter because it does not really lend itself to fact-checking and contradicting personal stories is socially taboo. Anti-vax groups are exploiting this by highlighting personal testimonials from parents who claim their children have been hit hard by a vaccine.
Other research has shown that media literacy can give people a false sense of confidence in their ability to spot misinformation. Researchers are also concerned that media literacy fosters cynicism towards all information by encouraging people to adopt a critical attitude. This is particularly problematic because bad actors deploy the same rhetoric of “critical thinking” and “asking questions” to undermine science and evidence-based information.
So these audience-focused measures should only be seen as part of a broader effort to combat misinformation, a vital quest as we look to mass vaccination this year. In a research project we’re working on, Provenance, we’re looking to add friction or encourage people to stop and think before liking or sharing a post. Twitter is also experimenting with this type of approach, which could help break the instant reaction cycle on social networks. These efforts can be supplemented with media literacy or fact-checking prompts.
Some researchers work on games, with the idea that showing people how to produce misinformation can provide a kind of inoculation against it. In other research, we explore how to cultivate the power of citizen voices and peer storytelling to strengthen the accuracy of information. Citizens’ voices are already being put to good use in other areas such as citizens’ assemblies and the first results of our research on Covid-19 misinformation and are encouraging.
The message for the government, Nphet and others responsible for rolling out the vaccine program is therefore that tackling misinformation about the vaccine and the virus must be a multi-pronged effort. Investing in media literacy is vital, but so is listening to peers, listening to personal stories, and understanding that vaccine effectiveness is part of the general scientific consensus, and not just the opinion of individual scientists. The latest behavioral and crisis-relevant research is available online (scibeh.org), a very useful resource for citizens, policymakers and journalists.
Dr Jane Suiter is the Research Council of Ireland’s 2020 Researcher of the Year for her work on the information environment in elections and referendums and on deliberation in the public sphere. She is an Associate Professor at DCU and Director of the FuJo Research Institute.