Increasingly it seems like we live in a world where there are two truths. Social media is largely to blame for this as it allows misinformation and disinformation to be broadcast to the masses with little fact-checking. The situation will likely only continue to get worse.
A major concern is how misinformation could even promote domestic terrorism, such as the January 6 insurrection.
“Social media platforms have generally abrogated responsibility for the dissemination of misinformation,” said Dr. William Pelfrey Jr., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Covid Misinformation A Threat Again
It seems now that as Covid-19 cases are once again on the rise, there could be a new wave of misinformation across social media.
“While Twitter and some social media sites restricted Covid-19 misinformation, rolling back those limitations serves only one master – profit,” Pelfrey suggested. “Those who are intent on spreading lies will do so somewhere, as evinced by the dramatic rise in users on non-mainstream platforms. To draw those users back, Twitter has elected to reduce limitations thereby propagating misinformation.”
Social media platforms continue to struggle with finding a way to balance legitimate free speech with the preservation of public health.
“There may not be a perfect balance,” warned Dr. Jeni Stolow, assistant professor of Public Health at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
“Misinformation safety nets are meant to unbiasedly fact-check harmful, illegal, or incorrect information to protect platform users,” she added. “Even though these interventions aren’t perfect, we know that they can positively impact health, wellness, and safety.”
Even as these misinformation policies roll out, there is still a need to more effectively and transparently connect companies, public health endeavors, and platform users so that misinformation management becomes a normalized team effort.
Accurate messaging can also play an impactful role on public health this winter.
“The research findings are very clear that misinformation can contribute to Covid-19 morbidity and mortality as well as perpetuate stigma, xenophobia, and hate speech,” said Stolow. “It is well-documented that misinformation can also negatively impact public health response efforts and health outcomes across other epidemics, health topics, and emergency settings. Data also show that misinformation spreads faster, wider, and at a higher magnitude than accurate information on social media platforms like Twitter.”
The Public Perception
Misinformation has been seen as potentially dangerous because it can negatively impact people’s perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors regarding health topics such as Covid-19 and other illnesses.
“Our aim in public health is to share evidence-based information to help people make informed decisions to best protect their health and the health of those around them,” Stolow noted. “Misinformation can impede that informed decision and lead people to make unhealthy or unsafe decisions that could result in sickness or death.”
Social media companies need to take a step back and assess their platforms and policies, and of that fails, it could be up to lawmakers to address the issue.
“At some point, Congress may fulfill their threats to impose formal guidelines,” Pelfrey continued. “Social media platforms would benefit from self-regulation as they will certainly not like what Congress imposes.”