The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
Reporters and news organizations should engage the public in debunking information in their own networks, said Andy Carvin, senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), during an ICFJ webinar Thursday.
“If it's only professionals working to correct the public record or clarify what the science is, there will continue to be misinformation and disinformation spreading,” he said.
Carvin and Indian health journalist Nayantara Narayanan, who works with PROTO, ICFJ’s partner organization in India, joined ICFJ's Global Director of Research Dr. Julie Posetti for a webinar to examine global trends in COVID-19 disinformation.
Here are key quotes from the conversation:
On the importance of citizens in fighting misinformation
Narayanan: In many parts of the world, “family WhatsApp groups are really the place where misinformation happens. I've seen several people sharing [fact-checking website] Alt News fact-checks every time someone shares a doctored video or a clip or some bizarre news article on their WhatsApp groups.”
Carvin: “Combating misinformation and disinformation, especially during a pandemic, it's a civic duty that requires everyone's involvement,” he said. "But if you're able to get people to realize that they need to be looking out for the safety of their families, their friends, their communities in the same way that people in many parts of the world have embraced social distancing as a civic duty. Distancing ourselves from misinformation and disinformation is almost as important, if not more important in some contexts.”
On the types of false information emerging during the pandemic
Carvin identified several trends:
“Historically, for example, you would see disinformation that came out of Russia versus China very differently. Russia always seemed to be the ‘Joker of the Internet’ in the sense of wanting to set the world on fire and create chaos and divisiveness, whereas China was very much more focused on maintaining their public brand, projecting their soft power…. But recently that's converged,” he said.
“We're seeing much more coming out of China that's more antagonistic, talking about bioweapons coming out of the U.S. Army while at the same time, while Russia continues to do its traditional types of disinformation, they're also talking about their humanitarian efforts. So they're talking about their soft power,” he pointed out.
“We're also seeing economic disinformation,” Carvin said. “Sometimes it's very targeted to consumers where people are trying to sell quack cures and the like, other times [the disinformation efforts are] as sophisticated as trying to destabilize economies.”
On combating mis- and disinformation
Narayanan: “Go to the experts that you trust and actually talk to multiple sources, multiple primary resources, to try and figure it out just to come as close to the truth as possible.”
Narayanan: “The other thing that is very important, of course, is to know that in many of these situations, there are no black and white answers. A lot of these myths and rumors are based on a grain of truth.”
When the science is lacking during an unfolding crisis, “flag the information and say that we don't know. I think that is something that's critical in a situation like this,” she said.
When deciding whether to debunk false information at the DFRLab, “the first thing we ask ourselves is, ‘Does it have any traction yet or is it just some random guy screaming into the infinite, infinite Internet, hoping that it takes hold?’ “ If not, "we will sometimes continue to track it, but we don't make a stink about it, because that's what a lot of these bad actors are looking for. They want the attention.”
He said that there was no formula to say when something has gained traction, so journalists just need to use editorial judgment as to whether it's happened or not.
“But there are times when essentially an idea has gotten out into the wild and is on the verge of taking on a life of its own or it's clearly beginning to impact certain populations. That's when I think it's important to start covering it,” Carvin said.
On overcoming audiences’ potential fact-check fatigue
Carvin: “If you are going to fact check something, rather than just saying, ‘So-and-so is claiming that something has happened and here's why they're wrong,’ what you do is you start your coverage by talking about what the truth is. And then in the middle of it, you then mention the fact that some people are getting it absolutely wrong and are being misleading about it and then go back to the truth again. And so the misleading information gets sandwiched in an informational package that's reinforcing the truth.”
Narayanan: “Essentially misinformation and disinformation plays off of fear…. It’s really important not just to debunk misinformation, but also give complete information because I've noticed that incomplete information triggers the same sorts of fears.”
Combating the disinfodemic: Working for truth in the time of COVID-19, a research report from UNICEF and ICFJ.