The United Nations urged social media users to “pause — take care before you share” on Tuesday to mark World Social Media Day and combat misinformation.

“We are in a moment of global reckoning, from the pandemic sweeping across the globe to worldwide protests for racial justice to the climate emergency,” the UN said on its website.

“Misinformation, hate speech and fake news is fuelling and distorting all of the challenges. It acts as a virus. It exploits our weakness. Our biases. Our prejudices. Our emotions,” it added.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation is the spreading of false information regardless of intent to mislead. Disinformation is the same except there is a desire to deceive.

So-called fake news has far-reaching consequences from causing public harm to putting people’s health, security and their environment at risk, according to the European Commission.

“Disinformation erodes trust in institutions and in digital and traditional media and harms our democracies by hampering the ability of citizens to make informed decisions,” it said.

“It can polarise debates, create or deepen tensions in society and undermine electoral systems, and have a wider impact on European security.”

How it spreads

False news spread much more rapidly on social media than real news does.

According to a 2018 study by three scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fake news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.

“It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people. When it comes to Twitter’s “cascades,” or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 about 20 times faster than facts,” they noted.

One of the reasons for that lies in platforms’ algorithms, which decides what users see and what they don’t see.

According to a report by the European Parliament released in 2018, “on Facebook, users usually see less than 10 per cent or everything that they are subscribed to by being friends or following people and organisations”.

Posts’ visibility is instead determined by users’ past activity (past interactions and likes); other users’ activity which determines how popular a post is among the users’ friends; and Facebook’s own evaluation.

How to spot fake news and stop its spread

As misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic grew, the EU’s agency for law enforcement cooperation — Europol — released a guide on breaking the fake news chain.

Among the steps it outlines are:

  • Be mindful, especially of clickbait headlines;
  • Check the website’s trustworthiness through its about page, mission and contact info;
  • Check whether other sources are reporting the same information and how many sources are actually mentioned in the story;
  • Run the picture through an online search to determine if it’s used out of context;
  • Go to reputable websites: in the case of COVID, they recommended turning to the World Health Organization and national health agencies.

If after conducting these steps, you’ve determined that it is fake news, Europol recommends you do not engage with it as “doing so would just make the post more popular” and to report it to the platform.

What does Euronews do to debunk fake news

Euronews only reports verifiable, officially-sourced facts to its readers and viewers. Part of our journalists’ mission also involved debunking fakes news circulating online.

Here are some of the latest examples of our work on the topic:

Twitter removes Chinese state-backed disinformation network

Earlier this month, Twitter removed 32,242 state-backed accounts, with more than two-thirds — 23,750 — attributed to China. These mostly spread “geopolitical narratives favourable to the Communist Party of China (CCP), while continuing to push deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong”, the company said in a statement.

Twitter said it also shut down 150,000 amplifier accounts “designed to boost this content”.

Independent researchers who studied the dataset provided by the social platform explained these were likely state-backed because the tweets were “mapped cleanly to working hours a Beijing Times” with spikes in posting observed through 8am-5pm Monday to Friday and drop-offs seen at weekends.

‘Super-spreaders’ of COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook identified

In May, NewsGuard, an analytics firm which tracks misinformation, investigated 36 Facebook pages, which it describes as “super-spreaders” of false information.

The offending pages each had more than 40,000 likes on Facebook and had a combined following of more than 13 million users.

NewsGuard found that the hoax social media pages have been targeting audiences in English, French, German, and Italian.

In all four languages, Facebook pages were found to have shared myths that the novel coronavirus had been created in a lab, or engineered as a bioweapon, despite no evidence supporting the theory.

Majority of coronavirus misinformation ‘twists and reworks facts’, study finds

In April, we reported on a study which found that nearly two-thirds of inaccurate coronavirus claims have a grain of truth in them but are twisted into something false.

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford analysed more than 200 COVID-19 claims rated either false or misleading by fact-checking organisation First Draft News.

It found 59 per cent of claims were “reconfigured”, meaning they true information was reworked, recontextualised or twisted into something false. The remaining 38 per cent of false claims were found to be completely fabricated.

This social media post on coronavirus is full of misinformation

Also in April, Euronews’ Cube team investigated a widely circulated social media post claiming to be an “excellent summary” of how to prevent COVID-19 and found it to be full of information.

It claimed to be from the US-based Johns Hopkins University, which has been at the forefront of publishing up-to-date information about the pandemic, including an interactive map that is often cited by scientists, politicians and journalists alike.

But the university said that “this is not something produced by Johns Hopkins Medicine.”

“We have seen rumours and misinformation about COVID-19 citing our experts and circulating on social media, and we have received several inquiries from the general public about these posts. We do not know their origin and they lack credibility,” it added.

#DCblackout: How one hashtag sewed confusion and misinformation

Our Cube team was at it again earlier this month, this time investigating the #dcblackout hashtag shared on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok.

NetBlocks, an organisation that monitors global internet connectivity, have confirmed that their intelligence showed “no indication of a mass-scale internet disruption” in the US capital.

Experts suggested that #dcblackout was one of the more interesting disinformation campaigns observed in recent years.

Many Twitter accounts promoting #dcblackout claims seemed to exhibit bot-like behaviour and could have been created for the purpose of spreading disinformation.

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