Flattening the infodemic curve, for facts’ sake
"Once I dove into reading conspiracy theorist articles for research, my Instagram, Facebook and TikTok now think I want to see more. It’s an endless feeding cycle that drives engagement..."
Misinformation is a stubborn beast. You could say it’s likened to a modern-day hydra. Once it’s cut off from one social media platform, it still lives on in the form of reposts and screenshots on another. We are so mentally and emotionally fatigued from information overload, from 11 o’clock press conferences to your 6 o’clock news, it’s not hard to turn to these alternative outlets to digest simpler information and solutions.
This past year, people are switching to social media more than ever before for their quick-fix on all things pandemic related (59% of young Australians, to be exact). Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok, you name it - it has been peppered with conspiracy theories being filtered and retold by thousands of users worldwide, driving political polarisation and dangerous fallacies surrounding the pandemic.
In February, The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation was put in place to reform these platforms so users can easily identify the reliability and source of news content. You would think a government strategy formidably known as “The Code” would help tackle the spread of propagated information, however The Code is voluntary and as ordained facilitators of free speech, social media platforms are free to decide on how they moderate and treat content being shared online. Given the ease of accessibility to misinformation and faulty pseudoscientific “evidence” supporting initial biases against vaccines, it’s no surprise a rapidly increasing community exists to put those who have championed not getting vaccinated on the pedestal of “protected freedom”. Once you fall down the rabbit hole though, there’s no coming out of it, and we can thank the social media algorithm for that.
Once I dove into reading conspiracy theorist articles for research, my Instagram, Facebook and TikTok now think I want to see more. It’s an endless feeding cycle that drives engagement so I can see how it would be easy to stumble into the hole and it’s terrifying, to say the least. But the algorithm isn’t all to blame. When it comes to the role of people versus algorithms in instances like spreading misinformation, people are just as significant. While we may see “fake news” spreading faster than facts across platforms, it is primarily real people who spread it rather than bots, and it’s these people who exploit the algorithms to promote content and monetise from growing engagement. Those who are taught the more outrageous the content, the more people will interact with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or false, as long as they engage.
Influencers. The name says it all. A person who inspires or guides the actions of others. They hold power over public opinion especially of Gen-Zers and millennials alike, and because we live in a generation of ‘wokeness’, influencers can no longer be apolitical online. Their followers want to ensure the people they are supporting share their values, from climate change to foreign policies, and now vaccines. For the most part during the pandemic, influencers have done their due diligence by using their platforms to spread messages encouraging vaccination and public safety far and wide, which I think we can all agree, government messaging has failed to do so effectively. However, despite none of them being doctors, scientists or epidemiologists, some influencers have used their online popularity to add legitimacy to conspiracy theories that are potentially life threatening.
Over the past week, I’ve seen countless articles calling out Aussie influencers who are spreading misinformation. Before reading, would I have known the name of the influencer who went on a tirade about the microchip being inserted into your arm is part of Bill Gates’ plan to take over the world? Probably not, but I do now. Many of these influencers are not big names, holding a respectable 50K or less followers, which would get them brand deals, for sure, but doesn’t compare to the influencers whose handles are more widely recognised across social media. Yes, we can mute their questionable beliefs with a simple unfollow but the hard truth is for however many unfollowers an influencer gets for sharing their controversial beliefs, there are just as many people who will follow them for speaking out about their shared beliefs.
So what should we do to stop the spread of the misinformation fuelled by influencers who get their information from political propaganda or ‘pseudo-profound’ reports? Well, when it comes to dealing with lower-level influencers, I’m just not sold on calling them out publicly. For individuals who already aren't enormously influential, blasting their names in articles won’t have the same effect as we would expect when we ‘cancel’ celebrities and individuals with more influential power. We’ve just given them another public platform to reach an audience outside of their follower bubble to view their referenced content, drive engagement and spread their misinformation (dare I say it, like a virus).
There is plenty we can do to make sure these individuals who make their living from audience engagement are facing the consequences of spreading harmful rhetoric across social media. Unfollowing them as a first step works. Reporting dangerous misinformation to social media moderators works too. Hell, take it one step further and reach out to brands sponsoring them to cut ties. The best way to ensure these harmful viewpoints don’t spread is to starve these influencers of what drives them, and that’s an audience. We need to be proactive when scrolling through our feeds by approaching news with a critical mind, ensuring we are looking at who is providing the information and making our own judgements on the legitimacy of the information on our screens because the harsh reality is, visibility and truth don’t always go hand in hand.
Words by Tiff Seeto, Junior Account Manager