‘Misinformation isn’t going to go away on its own’: Fake News in the era of Trump and Covid

By Richard Baker

IN recent years, misinformation has seen an alarming rise online, festering to an appreciative minority. 2020 has been no different.

The Presidential Election and Covid-19 pandemic, among other topics have kept fake news outlets stocked up last year. 

It is an issue that is only going to grow. With the unrelenting dominance of social media, where everyone has an equal platform to share their views, and a splintering of the political process continuing to feed misinformation. The last four years serves to prove that misinformation can even find its way to The White House, the top of America. 

During the pandemic, Facebook and Twitter were ordered to install fact check reminders onto misinformed posts in an effort to stem the flow of false information about a virus that demands respect. 

Yet an expert has told Redaction Politics that the promises made by the tech giants were somewhat hollow, designed only to be temporary and targeted.  

Matt Skibinski, General Manager of NewsGuard, an apolitical browser extension that flags up fake news online and monitors websites for news reliability, said the platforms have done the “bare minimum.”

“What the platforms are doing has not been nearly enough. Our reporting found that for both Facebook and Twitter, despite actions they had taken to combat Covid-19 misinformation and election misinformation, there were huge ‘super-spreader’ accounts pushing hoaxes about these topics, without any fact-check warnings, long after these supposed measures had been announced.”

In response, Facebook told Redaction Politics: “Fact checking has a critical role to play in stopping the spread of misinformation on Facebook. We have a global network of 80 fact checking partners working in 60 languages, fighting misinformation for events like elections and Covid-19.”

Twitter was also approached for comment.

Skibinski added: “The platforms cannot and will not solve these problems until they come to terms with the fact that any solution that works at scale and that users will actually trust will need to be completely transparent, rather than conducted by secret review boards or black-box algorithms

“But this approach goes against the very core of how many tech companies in Silicon Valley operate, so getting to that point will be an uphill battle.”

Online misinformation is an ever-evolving nuisance. It is one of the reasons it will never go away. 

“Misinformation publishers are amazingly adaptable”, he added. 

Their creativity in figuring out exactly what false narratives readers will click on at a given moment would be admirable if it weren’t so insidious. 

“If the big stories currently driving misinformation, Covid-19 and the US elections, become less interesting to readers, the misinformation publishers will just shift to a new, more interesting topic of focus.”

The politics of hate are closely connected to the spread, and digestion of, misinformation. But warns misinformation can appeal to anyone on the political spectrum. 

“Quite a lot of hateful content includes falsehoods or factual distortions that are intended to back up racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful views. I think it would be more difficult for such views to become widely popular without the help of certain misinformation narratives. 

The two often go hand in hand. A lot of misinformation works by exploiting the instinct people have to distrust those in power, and to distrust institutions that are powerful. That can appeal to those on the left or right.”

NewsGuard was set up in 2018 and is run by a team of international journalists, but Skibinski feels their work is still needed. 

“Misinformation isn’t going to go away on its own. It will continue to be a huge threat until we come together to find a way to combat it effectively. 

“If you look at nearly every major threat or issue that we, as a species, are going to have to deal with in the coming years, you’ll find that misinformation is a common thread making it harder for us to find solutions and is in many cases contributing to the growth of these problems.”

Matt Skibinski acts as General Manager of NewsGuard and advises on their operations, marketing, product direction and strategy. He is a frequent speaker on the topics of digital benchmarks and best practices for news organisations. 

Featured Image: Pixabay

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