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Online Contagion: How misinformation flourishes in the digital age

Online Contagion: How misinformation flourishes in the digital age

Despite having access to more information than ever before, people appear to be suffering from an information paradox: as access to information increases, the ability to parse and interpret that information for truth wanes. Apparent 5G-health misinformation is just the latest focus in an era of social media-induced misinformation. As the globe battles a deadly pandemic, the time for misinformation couldn’t be worse – or more threatening to our recovery. 

PART I: The Rise of Misinformation

The rise of misinformation has tracked closely with the expansion of social media and the digitalisation of the global economy. In just the last several weeks, Facebook has faced fresh allegations of rampant misinformation about Covid-19 on its platform, the US presidential election has been mired in legal disputes over ‘alternative facts’ and so-called anti-maskers are beginning to merge with anti-vaxxers, setting up a potentially deadly showdown. 

What is driving this broad distrust and increasing misinformation in our world?

Well, for one, we are increasingly reliant on social media and the internet for news and information. According to Ofcom, roughly 50% of all UK adults use social media for their primary source of news. And for this reason, academics and regulators have long warned of a coming ‘information disorder’ – an instance in which the public cannot parse through large amounts of information without being influenced by false information. 

Second, we spend less time validating and reading widely on a subject, limiting our ability to engage alternate viewpoints. Increasingly, users self-select into ‘echo chambers’ of those who think alike, tending to pass on rumours and fake news that substantiate their point of view, which in turn, further magnifies polarisation and belief in misinformation

Third, in this moment, many of us are holed-up at home as the pandemic rages on. Many have retreated from traditional media since March, with UK national publications losing 3 million daily digital readers after Q2. In this time, people have used social media more than ever to stay connected. But, apparent misinformation is spreading like wildfire through social networks. So, what happens when tools meant to connect divide us instead? 

Just about any newly introduced technology could face backlash from consumers. Look and you can see this all around us in today’s world: from wind farms to 5G technology. We will use the latter as a lens to better understand why misinformation has become so problematic. 

PART II : Visualising the Online Contagion

Since cellular technology first emerged several decades ago, the public has often wondered aloud, without much scientific evidence, whether cancer or infertility would be side effects of the technology. So far, they haven’t. 

Since then, telecommunications companies have invested billions in building the infrastructure that would eventually support 5G and the technological advances it promises. 

But as 5G came into our lexicon, so too did rumours that the fifth-generation mobile technology was bad for human health. Then along came Covid-19. 

Suddenly, social media was awash with 5G conspiracy theories. It didn’t matter where you looked – Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. The words were slightly different but sang the same tune: “Wuhan was the first city to launch 5G” or “Former Vodafone Boss Blows Whistle On 5G.” The UK’s Rapid Response Unit, a sort of cyber command centre set up to deal with coronavirus misinformation, reports that it deals with up to 70 such incidents a week – on Covid-19 alone!

But from here things got strange. Well, stranger.

As the 5G-Covid-19 rumors began bouncing around social networks, some users found themselves so afraid of the next generation mobile technology that they began destroying telephone masts, usually through arson. Since March, a sharp increase in vandalism against telecommunication infrastructure has resulted in more than 150 arson attacks on 5G masts throughout Europe, with the highest number occurring in the UK (77). 

Worse still, UK-provider BT reports that nearly 40 incidents have been recorded wherein a member of the public has assaulted or threatened engineers carrying out essential works. 5G has inspired such powerful anger and fear that human lives are now being put in peril in addition to critical infrastructure. 

These attacks amount to untold millions of lost investments for telecommunications firms and delays to integration of IoT brought about by 5G. This 5G and health misinformation is not yet dissipating. If anything, its grip has tightened since early 2020.  

Graph 1: Volume by Year on link between 5G and Health Issues (2019-20)

In February, alva analysed data to determine what was driving the link between 5G and health-related stories, especially cancer. We found that year-on-year coverage had jumped from just 24 traditional media articles per-month on the link in January 2019 to 131 in January 2020. 

However, in our most recent analysis, we find that articles linking 5G to cancer dropped off in early March and are now nowhere to be found. Instead, these stories have been reincarnated as a purported link between 5G and Covid-19. 

To better see this, we separated data from social media from traditional media – the 5G controversy began online, after all. What we found demonstrates the power of social media to influence those who may not have accounts of their own but who could be influenced by reports in traditional media (see Graph 2). 

Graph 2: Volumes by Day on link between 5G and Health Issues (2020)

Graph 2: Volumes by Day on link between 5G and Health Issues (2020)

In 2019, 5G-health stories were mostly social media-led, with more limited pick-up in traditional outlets. Of traditional outlets, regional publications were the most likely to publish stories on an alleged 5G-health link. By early 2020, we see much of the same: minor discussion, almost theoretical in nature, on the links between 5G and health, mostly led by sensational social media posts. 

That is, until, the world changed. 

Around the time that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the number of articles linking 5G with the coronavirus begins to skyrocket. In April alone, there are over are over 5,000 traditional media articles on the subject – that’s up from just under 200 traditional articles in April 2019. 

Whereas 2019’s 5G-health stories were primarily social media driven, 2020 tells a different story. By mid-March, other traditional publications, including national and wire-based outlets, were widely publishing stories on a purported link between 5G and adverse health impacts. 

Overall coverage is up +32% year-on-year, with traditional publications seeing +1,699% increase from 2019 – and 2020 isn’t even over yet!

But it’s not just traditional media, social media is what gave the new 5G-Covid-19 story legs. Social media coverage is on par with 2019, and looks likely to match or eclipse last year’s levels of coverage. As such, it is imperative to understand how social media stories can influence coverage in national and local outlets, which arguably are more persuasive to readers than tweets or posts from the tin foil brigade.  

As you can see in Graph 2 above, social media stories highlighting the link between 5G and Covid-19 tend be short-lived and highly visible. After the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic on 11 March, we suddenly see a sharp rise in social media chatter about alleged links between 5G and the disease. In fact, we see that social media actually drives traditional media coverage to its highest levels to-date. 

Part III: What can communicators do differently?

This is the current landscape for communicators. Society’s ‘information disorder’ could yet get more fevered as job cuts mount, protests continue, climate disasters unfold and elections are contested. At the end of the day, the 5G-health controversy is a human-enabled falsehood that spreads when the public’s attention is elsewhere. The more ‘stressors’ added into the mix, the greater the opportunity for societal disquiet to emerge. 

As 5G communications strategies continue to be refined, communicators should consider the following to enable success:

 

  • Mum is not the word: Correct misinformation and disinformation as early as possible. People find uncertainty unsettling. When businesses provide clarity, they can help play an active role in easing customers’ minds. Communications professionals should continue to seek to provide transparency and clarity wherever possible, including through the use of clapbacks on social media and traditional means. 
  • Seeing is believing:  Generally, if a platform takes action to remove flagged content after it’s already gone viral, the act of removal could backfire, becoming its own story. This only further substantiates spreaders of misinformation who take this action as ‘proof’ of larger forces trying to prevent ‘the truth’ from being uncovered. Users may accuse the platform of bias, or censorship. This actually underscores the imperative of removing problematic content quickly: repeating information doesn’t make it true, but seeing it more than once makes it more likely to be believed. 
  • Invest in digital literacy: Digital literacy may be our best hope against online misinformation. Starting with school children, digital literacy initiatives help build the critical thinking and awareness necessary to combat online misinformation. Not only does this training make participants better able to spot misinformation, it enhances their overall critical thinking skills. These same lessons could be adapted for adult use, too. 
  • Change it up: Companies can be successful in turning their creative PR strategies to finding ways to deal with issues around public health, mental health and the health of our nations, by taking a supportive, informative tone. Those that ensure they are part of the collective solution and are engaging with these big-ticket issues as part of a healthy societal conversation, will be the organisations that gain stakeholder support over the longer-term.
  • And, finally, be the policymaker you want to see in the world: The complex nature of 5G and its associated infrastructure makes explaining the technology difficult. While regulatory bodies and the World Health Organization have debunked claims that 5G is linked to adverse human health, this false claim has continued to spread.  Businesses across the value chain are demonstrating decisive leadership with clear action. Vodafone’s CEO, Nick Jeffery, hit back at ‘deluded’ 5G conspiracy theorists in an equally viral LinkedIn post – the first examples of an executive to do so in the UK – which jumpstarted the media’s own information campaign to debunk false 5G stories. This positivity comes with the burden of accountability, with Vodafone now one (if not the) leading British telcoms company on the subject. The question remains whether, in the aftermath of Covid-19, 5G-associated businesses will emerge with enhanced societal reputation or whether poor management of Covid-19 will fall on them.​

There is reason for hope. People have always adapted to change and there is no reason to believe that this current wave of challenges will be insurmountable. The important question here is to determine what kind of problem online misinformation is. Is it something that can resolved and “fixed” quickly? Or is it more like a social condition, something that requires constant tweaking and constant maintenance and vigilance by us all. The evidence point incontrovertibly towards the latter.

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