Infodemiology of Covid-19: navigating misinformation in New Zealand
Dr Ellen Strickland Chief Advisor - International •
The Internet is a great way for people to access and share information, but not all of that information is helpful. In a global pandemic, as we now face, correct, timely information from the right source, received through the right medium, can save lives. Get that recipe wrong, especially with misinformation or mixed messages, and it costs lives. People basing their actions on misinformation about Covid-19 is leading to increased spread, and, in some places, to more suffering and fatalities.
We’re facing a global infodemic and it is killing people
Earlier this week, we woke up here in New Zealand to find platforms had been forced to remove, and/or flag as inaccurate, another round of false information being spread by a world leader about COVID-19; false information that spreads quickly online and can encourage people to put their own and others lives at greater risk.
Online misinformation, particularly the infodemic related to Covid-19, is one of the most urgent and important Internet issues both internationally and in New Zealand. What we are starting to see now is a growing understanding of that misinformation infodemic and actions being taken to manage it: an emergent field of what is being called infodemiology.
Here in New Zealand, recent research has found that 20% of Kiwis believe false information about Covid-19. How can we help New Zealanders to stay safe from this misinformation? We need an infodemiology action plan for New Zealand.
Misinformation is not a new problem
Misinformation is a broad umbrella term for the content online that is leading people to believe bad information. Whether it is the deliberate planting of false information, a rumour that snowballs, or satire that loses its context as it gets shared, people share misinformation online for a lot of reasons. They might be doing so maliciously - when it is often called disinformation - or because they believe it, or they just want the likes! There is a growing body of research on types of misinformation, including this widely used research on different motivations and types of information from First Draft News Research.
People interested in the Internet have been talking about the risks of misleading information online for years, and particularly since the 2016 US presidential election, where there was evidence of coordinated overseas influence in online debates. The Knight Foundation produced an excellent interactive report on what it found related to that election and misinformation.
Misinformation is an Internet issue. False information has always existed, but the current use of the Internet enables unprecedented speed, reach, and profile for misinformation. Traditional media has editors, gatekeeping and legislation at levels that make removing or amending misinformation more likely, although these are also being impacted by the speed of the Internet.
InternetNZ has been a part of the conversation on the risks of online misinformation, particularly here in New Zealand. Our paper on Platforms and Misinformation, together with our #FreakFish comic in TheSpinoff illustrated the ways that even well-meaning people might sometimes help misinformation spread online. Last year, we also made a submission to, and appeared before, the Justice Select committee to share concerns about the potential for a role of misinformation in foreign Interference in our democratic processes.
A recent popular documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, explores some of the issues related to misinformation spread, but I’d recommend it be taken with a grain of salt and a critical eye, for many of the same reasons a recent New Zealand review of the documentary suggests. The tech organisation Mozilla have shared a great Reading list: The Social Dilemma, which steers people who want to geek out towards researchers, writers and leaders who have been sounding alarm bells for years about some of the issues in the documentary.
Time to act for New Zealand
Researchers at Te Pūnaha Matatini have recently been researching how misinformation about Covid-19 is spreading online in New Zealand in ways that reach people in our community and may influence how they behave. People connecting and coordinating online have organised protest marches objecting to aspects of the official Covid-19 response.
We’ve also seen people in our community working to address misinformation in a range of ways: public health expert Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris have created simple comics that help explain what people can do to stop Covid-19 spreading and to address misinformation about it. Journalist David Farrier has been reporting examples of misinformation online.
Can we take this work and build on it, to create and support a field of infodemiology for New Zealand?
Overseas, the European Union has taken a regional approach and just two weeks back a wide range of United Nations agencies have issued a joint statement and call for nations and communities, including academic, technologists, media and community organisations to work together to create action plans and coordinated response to the infodemic.
In our work at InternetNZ on global Internet issues and governance, we have long advocated for collaboration and coordinated action as a foundation for how the Internet operates best: I believe the way forward for infodemiology in New Zealand is this approach, bringing together different stakeholders in their relevant roles to protect New Zealanders from the deadly potential of this infodemic.
Building a community-informed, collaborative infodemic response plan for New Zealand: join us at NetHui!
Clear public health messages from official sources are a big part of the best response to Covid-19. Misinformation casts doubt on these messages, and on the people and organisations they come from, and leads to mistrust. That mistrust means official responses can’t be the only answer to misinformation.
We need community-informed, collaborative work as a vital part of our response to misinformation. Government, the media, researchers and community organisations can all have a role in taking action. New Zealanders can help each other understand how to avoid sharing misinformation, and support social trust among their friends, families, and communities, using the same informal networks that misinformation does.
If you’re interested in the challenges of misinformation, join us to work on these issues at NetHui next week! We’re hoping the online format will make it easier for anyone interested to join in, from different places and even timezones. You can tune in to the NetHui panel on misinformation from 12:35pm NZDT on Tuesday October 13. You can also join our online discussion on the infodemic across both days of NetHui, in the breakout stream that I’ll be hosting together with Mandy Henk from Tohatoha.
We’d love to see you there. So click here to register for NetHui online.