Want to do your part to stop the spread of coronavirus?
Wear a mask, wash your hands and stay home as much as possible.
Want to do your part to stop the spread of coronavirus misinformation?
Stop getting your news from social media.
The pandemic has killed close to 400 people in Berks County and more than 200,000 nationwide since the first cases of the coronavirus were reported earlier this year. Good information is critical in any crisis, but these days access to it is complicated by the fact that so much misinformation abounds.
And if we can’t agree on basic facts about the pandemic, we as a nation will have a hard time agreeing on solutions. A study published this week showed how challenging that task is.
The report, by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which comprises researchers from Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern universities found that belief in myths about the coronavirus correlates to use of social media as a news source.
What it found was that people who used mobile messaging apps like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, were most likely to fall for misinformation.
Before you start blaming your uncle for sharing a bogus claim on Facebook from some sketchy site, the study also found that people under the age of 45 were most likely to believe the false claims compared to older adults.
But then, younger adults make up the bulk of the user base for those messaging apps I mentioned above.
The one upside? Researchers found that only 11% of people who got their news from local sources fell for the bogus claims. These days we’ll take any victories we can get.
So if you’re reading this, congratulations for not being gullible.
But the fact that social media still, after all this time, provides oxygen to misinformation is both troubling and unsurprising. And though I often write about the misdeeds of Facebook in particular, this week one of the company’s former executives provided a stark reminder about just how dangerous that platform is.
“We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset,” Tim Kendall told Congress this week.
Kendall was Facebook’s first director of monetization, and he testified about Facebook’s destructive engagement strategy this week before the House Committed on Energy and Commerce.
Continuing the Big Tobacco metaphor, he added:
“Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.”
Time and again, we have seen how misinformation spread on social media infects the real world:
The similarities between Facebook and Big Tobacco were already evident before Kendall gave his “mea culpa” testimony. Still, good for Kendall for getting it off his chest.
Kendall’s words illustrate just how little progress has been made in getting social platforms to behave responsibly, even in an era when the quest for accurate information is itself a public health emergency.