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From the file

Infodemic II | We want to find out who has been peddling medical misinformation in the midst of a global pandemic.

Civility and sincerity

Thursday 6 August 2020

The Tortoise Take: what’s next? How can we deal with the super-spreaders?


Celebrities are dangerous. That, in a way, is the most striking finding from this week’s Tortoise investigation into the super-spreaders who are propagating misinformation around the Internet during a pandemic. Sometimes the celebrities are effectively digital-only, grown from and for devoted online tribes. Sometimes they are celebrities in the more traditional sense, like racing drivers and television stars. In all cases, their huge social media followings allow them to easily weaponise – and, in some cases, even monetise – bad information. It is influencer culture turned dark.

What can we do about this? It depends on who is meant by we. For the super-spreaders themselves, the best approach is surely to shut the hell up – but this is only likely in certain cases. Last week, Lewis Hamilton reposted a video on his Instagram account (18.7 million followers) that peddled a conspiracy theory about Bill Gates and a coronavirus vaccine; he soon deleted it and released a statement emphasising: “I’m not against a vaccine.” We cannot expect the same from Robert F. Kennedy Jr, interviewed in this week’s Tortoise Slow Newscast, who really believes in what he is doing and will not stop.

As for the social media companies, it is always true that they can do more. The pandemic has seen Facebook, Twitter and others take steps that they should have taken years ago, including the flagging-up of dodgy content and partnerships with fact-checking organisations, but their platforms are still far from decontaminated. Perhaps governments can chivvy them along by applying the measures that Tortoise has set out in the past: break-up; public standards; and dedicated ministerial departments.

But it is the fourth category of we – not the spreaders, the platforms, nor the politicians – that offers the most hope. That category is the rest of us: the millions who don’t want to encounter or spread misinformation online.

It was this mostly silent majority that became, quite unexpectedly, the focus of a ThinkIn this week. Towards the end of the discussion, one of our guests, the academic Manlio De Domenico, said that “we have to change our way of attacking the problem, because the problem of misinformation and disinformation is a problem of our society”. He continued, “we have to move from the paradigm where we need 100 per cent accurate information to a paradigm where we are happy with 99 per cent accurate information”.

This slight change in expectations would be a massive achievement. The idea that we should approach the online world with a degree of scepticism is a basic component of digital literacy, but also a highly significant one – particularly when it comes to private messaging services such as WhatsApp, where the tidal flow of information will always be beyond the control of regulators.

But, crucially, 99 per cent accuracy is also an achievable goal. De Dominico put it in the context of Wikipedia: for many years, the online encyclopaedia was almost a byword for rubbishness, a place where facts were in short supply; whereas now it is “one of the best websites where you can find reliable information… most of the time”. The turnaround was achieved because Wikipedia fostered a community of good citizens who strive not for perfection but for really, really good. It put the right incentives in place for the wisdom of crowds to prevail. What a model that is for combatting misinformation more generally.

Tortoise is determined to be part of this effort. We are, in truth, still figuring out the particulars, but we are aiming to produce an ongoing, comprehensive index of the worst super-spreaders and their most harmful posts. If you have any ideas about how this can be done, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact: editor@tortoisemedia.com

A quote from Robert F. Kennedy’s uncle, John F. Kennedy, has become our standard this week: “…civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” Let’s find a place for civility, and be sticklers for the proof.

Next in this file

Robert Kennedy Jr’s anti-vaxx conspiracy theories are being shut down at last – but only up to a point

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