Tackling misinformation during Covid-19: a journalistic and ethical imperative

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By John Crowley (April 6)

Back on March 16, when the world felt like an altogether different place, the Edelman Trust Barometer published a report on the veracity of information into Covid-19. One survey question stood out: “Please indicate how much you trust each of the following sources to tell you the truth about the virus and its progression?”

Some 10,000 respondents from 10 countries* – including the US, UK, Brazil, Italy and South Africa – ranked scientists (83%), their GP [family doctor] (82%) and World Health Organisation officials (72%) highest in percentage terms. A “person like yourself” (63%), “my employer CEO” (54%) and fellow co-workers (53%) were in the middle of the pack. At the bottom were journalists (43%) and the collective mass known as the “news media” (50%). Both fared worse in people’s estimations than “my country’s leader” (51%)

The complex questions around state-sponsored disinformation campaigns and trust in journalism run broad and deep – and have been unpacked by Julie Posetti, an internationally renowned journalist and academic. They give some background and context to this crisis of trust in journalism that was evident even before Covid-19. Journalists would do well to recognise how they currently sit in the public consciousness, particularly as they face the biggest news story of their lives so far, and are faced with the challenges of carrying out their work remotely at a time of great economic uncertainty.

Some have already been furloughed or made redundant. This trend is only likely to accelerate, particularly at a local news level, as an industry that was already struggling for a viable business model confronts a collapse in advertising in the wake of Covid-19.

But for reporters to retreat into a collective shell during a global health pandemic would be a dereliction of duty. From miraculous cures to paranoid conspiracies, the advance of online false news around Covid-19 has mirrored the spread of the virus itself. Journalism really needs to step up the plate to tackle a misinformation contagion, something the World Health Organisation has labelled an ‘infodemic’.

The Ethical Journalism Network has spoken to leading fact-checkers and verification experts who are helping journalists report on Covid-19. Multiple organisations have launched tools, resource hubs and websites and are offering advice, insights and free online training. (An edited version of their responses can be found in a Q&A below).

But an uncomfortable truth has also emerged: a significant body of journalists still need to play catch-up on how to monitor, verify and responsibly report disinformation.

Sophie Nicholson, deputy head of social media and fact-checking for AFP in Paris, says that while strides have been made “there’s still a long way to go – training needs to be ongoing as social networks evolve along with methods of manipulation”.

Nicholson points to non-profit First Draft, “which has great up-to-date online training,” and the Global Investigative Journalism Network, for “good tips and resources”.

“I think it’s useful (and really interesting) to read through more in-depth investigations on sites like Bellingcat … to get familiar with online research methods and tools,” Nicholson adds. “I also encourage journalists to practice by taking part in online challenges such as [the verification quizbot] @quiztime on Twitter.”

Eileen Culloty is a Dublin-based researcher at the DCU FuJo Institute. She works on the Provenance project, which is developing automated supports for evaluating online content.

“The key [knowledge] gap surrounds the responsible reporting of disinformation and rumours,” Dr Culloty explains. “Just because a piece of disinformation has been identified, [it] doesn’t mean it needs to be reported immediately if at all.

“Specific scenarios will vary, but prior to publishing journalists could consider whether the disinformation actually merits more exposure through a debunk and whether it’s more beneficial to reinforce the correct information rather than highlight the disinformation.”

The finger of blame around misinformation is often pointed at shadowy state actors or members of the public. But increasingly recognised news organisations are being cited too.

“We have seen misinformation spread by some national news titles with large readerships across the UK,” says Tom Phillips, Editor of UK fact-checking charity Full Fact.

“We know that fact checking is not easy, especially in a rapidly changing situation like this. If there was one thing I’d say to journalists, it’s always worth taking the time to double or triple check before you put anything out there.”

As of April 6, Full Fact’s editorial team has completed around 70 fact checks on “popular myths, bad health advice and conspiracy theories” around Covid-19. At the end of March it published a guide to fact-checking coronavirus claims for members of the general public and is also running an initiative known as Ask Full Fact, in which readers submit requests to its editorial team.

AFP has created its own coronavirus verification hub and is working with the Trusted News Initiative, a shared alert system with partners from media organisations – and crucially platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. The news agency is also a member of the CoronavirusFacts Alliance, led by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute, which unites more than 100 fact-checkers around the world.

“We are also in close discussions with platforms and the World Health Organisation to work on finding better ways to work together and inform the public,” Nicholson adds.

Tom Trewinnard and Fergus Bell founded Fathm last November, an independent news lab to help organisations navigate emergent technologies and trends. Both have deep experience in newsgathering, verification and mis- and disinformation.

“Many journalists now have a grasp of basic techniques such as reverse image search [to identify images that are old or used out of context],” Trewinnard points out.

“However new challenges have emerged. How do you find and verify a meme shared on WhatsApp that mixes false claims about potential treatments for coronavirus with accurate images of patients? How do you quickly and effectively communicate complicated, technical, medical concepts to audiences in a way that is engaging and shareable?”

First Draft launched a new online course on coronavirus at the beginning of April with tools and advice on how to tackle disinformation. By March 11 it had already established a hub of resources for reporters on newsgathering and verification, a searchable database of debunked information, a regularly updated rundown of how the platforms were responding to the ‘infodemic’, as well as ethical and practical tips for journalists to help with their reporting.

Alastair Reid, its digital editor, explains: “Not everyone needs the kind of in-depth monitoring skills which is part of what we teach at First Draft — although I’d argue every newsroom does — but an introduction is always useful.

“When conversations for almost every beat are happening online as well as in person, it pays to know how to listen. Similarly, everyone should have a grounding in the basics of how to digitally verify pictures, videos and claims, like doing a reverse image search.”

The platforms’ approach to misinformation has previously seen them on the receiving end of trenchant criticism. According to some experts, their collective response to Covid-19 has given grounds for guarded optimism.

“I think what a lot of the tech platforms are doing at present is a really strong step in the right direction in terms of battling disinformation,” says Reid. “Many are making sure to promote links to accurate sources of information at the top of people’s feeds and in searches, and flagging anything which is proven to be false.”

Full Fact itself plays an independent role in Facebook’s Third Party Fact Checking programme. Phillips says: “It is important that the internet companies have begun to signpost reliable sources of information prominently. We are in touch with them and feeding back as their efforts evolve day by day.

“Facebook works with fact checkers, including AFP, to identify, label and downgrade false information but there is so much out there and many more fact checkers are needed to have a significant impact,” adds Nicholson.

Sounding a note of caution, Culloty says Facebook-owned WhatsApp “remains a challenge”, a point that is shared by Nicholson.

“Platforms like WhatsApp and YouTube [owned by Google] are notorious for hosting so much damaging false information and yet it isn’t apparent that they are taking the problem seriously enough right now,” Nicholson warns.

The big takeaway for journalism practitioners is that help is at hand. Trewinnard says Fathm has been “working actively with newsrooms and news networks around the world on their misinformation strategy”.

“We are helping them put measures in place to ensure that they are not responsible for spreading misleading content to their audiences.”

It is offering free sessions with experts on its team to help journalism educators shift to remote teaching. Soon it will publish an open guide for social newsgathering around coronavirus.

“With many journalists (and sources) stuck at home, a lot of methods for monitoring social media for valuable content and sources can really come to the fore – accompanied by rigorous verification processes, of course,” adds Trewinnard.

Governments around the world are setting up their own rapid response units to counter disinformation, although media freedom advocates fear that some countries such as Cambodia, Hungary, Egypt and Singapore are using ‘fake news bans’ as a cloak for authoritarianism.

If the middle of March feels like a long time ago, then the journalism industry can take solace in record numbers of people tuning in to news broadcasts and reading their Covid-19 content online.

The BBC, the UK’s public service broadcaster which was sharply criticised for its coverage of the country’s 2019 election, has been praised for its calm and authoritative reporting around coronavirus.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says the corporation has “hit on what many want – lead with lots of news you can use and a few key news stories, relegate politics and deaths”.

The Edelman report also revealed that across the 10 countries, major news organisations were the most relied-upon information source at 64% for where people got “most of their information,” well ahead of national government (40%) and social media (38%).

If journalism can globally get its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic right, then it will save countless lives and go some way to restoring its trust among the public.

John Crowley is a journalist with more than two decades of experience working for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Irish Post, and others. He writes on business, tech, newsroom management, burnout and disinformation.

*Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and the US. The survey was conducted with 1,000 people per country between March 6-10.

 Please find below additional information and resources linked to this article

AFP – the news agency’s coronavirus verification hub.

Bellingcat – an independent international collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigations to probe a variety of subjects.

CoronavirusFacts Alliance – an initiative being by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute, bringing together more than 100 fact-checkers around the world.

Fathm – an independent news lab which works with journalists, editors and leaders in news to spark creative and impactful change in journalism.

First Draft – a non-profit fighting global misinformation. Among its many offerings is a free online course covering coronavirus.

Full Fact – a UK-based charity with a team of independent fact checkers and campaigners.

Global Investigative Journalism Network – an international association of journalism organizations that support the training and sharing of information among investigative and data journalists—with special attention to those from repressive regimes and marginalized communities.

Provenance – a project to develop an intermediary-free solution for digital content verification that gives greater control to users of social media.

@quiztime – verify yourself through a series of quizzes posted daily on Twitter.

Trusted News Initiative – an industry collaboration of major news and tech organisations working together to rapidly identify and stop the spread of harmful Coronavirus disinformation.

The Ethical Journalism Network has collated the following responses from experts cited above to give more resources, responses and context. These responses from fact-checkers and verification experts have been edited for clairty.

Describe some of the issues journalists are having to contend with regards to coronavirus disinformation?

Eileen Culloty: The volume and speed of disinformation – much of it recycled from one region to another – would suggest that newsrooms need to cooperate more by pooling resources. There is little point spending time debunking a claim in Ireland that has already been debunked in the UK. Some of the disinformation also falls into a “false but plausible” category. It echoes things that are happening elsewhere – such as travel restrictions or lockdowns – which people are anticipating in their own region.

Alastair Reid: Firstly, nature abhors a vacuum, so when there is an absence of verified facts, the rumours and speculation rush in to fill the gap. Secondly, it has put everyone in very real danger, so emotions are running high and emotions tend to blind us to more rational, reasoned thought processes.

“Then you have the social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok are all powered by emotion, whether its fear or humour or anger or love. They are designed to let us emote remotely, so to speak, and reward information which is more emotionally charged by showing it to more users.

“Throw all that together and we have the current online chaos of constant rumours, scams, speculation, hoaxes and outright disinformation circulating online as people struggle to make sense of what is an unprecedented situation.”

Tom Trewinnard:With regular news stories, disinformation tends to appear around certain topics or themes, but given the scale of the coronavirus crisis, there’s a vast wave of disinformation emerging across a vast range of subjects: the source and timeline of the virus, cures and treatments, the economic fallout, government response, the symptoms and effects of the virus, the situation in hospitals, testing practices – the list goes on.”

Who out there in the fact-checking and verification community is doing a good job?

Tom Trewinnard: Jane Lytvenenko always does a spectacular job of tracking viral disinformation and clearly debunking it on Twitter – her thread on false coronavirus claims, which she started in January, is a masterpiece.

“One really interesting initiative, launched by Mike Caulfield is Infodemic Blog, where they’re explaining to audiences in simple ways how to check information for themselves. They’re using GIFs on Twitter to show how easy it can be to pick apart questionable claims.

“On our radar right now is Infotagion – launched by a group of cross-party MPs in the UK and various experts, focusing solely on fact checking COVID-19 claims. We’ve not seen a collaboration quite like it before, so it will be very interesting to see how it progresses, but there’s strong potential there.” 

Having to cover and report on the coronavirus pandemic is obviously stressful. Do you have any advice for dealing with a) burnout and b) isolation when working from home?

Tom Phillips: “We know it’s a time when people’s wellbeing is affected not just by their own experience, but by the experience of those close to them. The work we do is needed now more than ever. But we also know that fact checking claims around the new coronavirus is a marathon and not a sprint.”

“As an organisation, we have wellbeing at our core – and never more so than right now. We have been providing links to those best placed to give professional support, and managers are in daily dialogue with their teams and. Virtual ‘All Hands’ meetings are now a weekly fixture.”

Sophie Nicholson:These are challenges we are learning to deal with right now. We are trying to get our teams to treat this like a marathon and to pace themselves, taking days off as well as time off during the day to do something away from a screen.

“We try to keep all work conversations on Slack where people log in and log off when they are at lunch or finished for the day. We have more online chats with teams in different countries than usual to check in and also try to make sure there is room for non-work chats as well.”

What can technology platforms do right now to tackle disinformation?

Eileen Culloty: “The major social media platforms have made official information sources more visible, which is a good development. Of course, the disinformation and conspiracy theories are still there. The backbone of their strategy is to amplify official information rather than remove disinformation. With a reduced work-force to monitor content, they are more reliant on AI, which may create some problems.

“Overall, there is an opportunity here for the platforms to be transparent about the effectiveness of their interventions and to share knowledge with researchers and verification experts. I don’t expect the emergency interventions against COVID-19 will become a norm for content moderation – these are exceptional circumstances – but we could learn a lot about how to counteract disinformation more effectively through the platforms.

“WhatsApp remains challenging: many of the false rumours are forwarded from a ‘friend of a friend’. It might be helpful if there were restrictions on forwarding, but this needs to be balanced with the fact that people are now relying on WhatsApp to stay in contact with family and friends.”