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Misinformation: Is it time for social media distancing?

March 20, 2020.

By Cara Zwibel,  Canadian Civil Liberties Association 

For comments, please email: media@ccla.org 

The pursuit of the truth today is not an academic or recreational exercise – we want to know if  it’s okay to go get groceries during a pandemic.  But nobody has a monopoly over the truth.  Out of the chaos, curating and distancing social media may become the new normal for consumers of information.   

At a time when accurate information is so important, it is worth thinking about the tools that are available to us and how we can all go about ensuring we stay informed. So many of us get information through our social media connections, but how much should we rely on these connections when it comes to information that is so crucial to our health and safety? Social media is an important tool for connecting, particularly in times when we are forced to be apart. But using it as our primary  or only source of accurate news information – particularly in a public health crisis that is evolving at warp speed – may be risky 

Increasingly, large platforms are taking steps to fact check and deal with misinformation. group of the largest tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft recently released a joint statement saying they are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts. Part of this work includes “combating fraud and misinformation about the virus” and “elevating authoritative content on our platforms”.  While this statement came out on March 16, the very next day there were widespread reports of legitimate content being flagged and removed as spam on Facebook The company has acknowledged that this occurred, citing a “bug” in their anti-spam system that they are working on fixing. We should not be surprised that algorithms are imperfect – indeed, large tech companies have acknowledged that increased reliance on machine learning and artificial intelligence is likely to mean that some mistakes will be made in assessing what content is legitimate and what is not.  What the current environment serves to highlight is the increasingly significant role that these private companies play in how we access and consume information It also makes plain some of the challenges and costs associated with using algorithms to moderate and, in some cases, censor, expressive content.  

While these companies must be accountable for their actions, for the time being, the priority should be on taking steps to keep ourselves well informed.  

Here are a few tips to consider in your quest for good information during a public health crisis:  

  • Be an active consumer of information; rather than relying on a news feed, develop a list of sources that you check regularly, or subscribe to updates directly from the source 
  • Consult official public health bodies and sources to see the information they are sharing and the advice they are giving.  
  • Consult government websites and follow the social media accounts of key ministries and departments.  
  • Visit trusted news sources that adhere to high standards of journalistic integrity. Some things to consider in deciding whether a news source is to be trusted: 
  • Look at whether the organization adheres to a Code of Ethics and, if so, what that Code includes.   
  • Consider what is made accessible about the author of a piece, their credentials and experience. Where anonymous sources have been relied upon, have the reasons been explained?  
  • Consider if the news organization has submitted to a form of regulation by joining the National NewsMedia Council. While there is no regulatory body in Canada for journalists, the National NewsMedia Council is a voluntary self-regulatory body that helps to hold its members accountable for their coverage.  
  • The Trust Project is an organization working to help individuals determine which news sources can be relied upon; they have developed trust indicators and are working with social media companies to help ensure that trustworthy information is promoted on their platforms. You can look at their website and also look for the Trust mark on news sources that adhere to the principles the Trust Project has developed.  
  • Get your information directly from trusted websites where information is published rather than clicking links on social media posts or in emails or text messages; scammers and phishers are using global interest in COVID-19 to spread malware or trick people into giving them personal information or money. 

Finally, since many of us are stuck at home with bored children, why not take this opportunity to teach them about the importance of media literacy? Media Smarts has some excellent resources for young people, including games and videos 

Cara Zwibel is the Director, Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.  As counsel, she  has appeared before, and clerked at, the Supreme Court of Canada. 

MEDIA: 

For further comments, please contact us at media@ccla.org
 

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