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disinformation

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As millions of Americans have raced to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, millions of others have held back. Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new, of course, especially with new vaccines, but the information people use to weigh their decisions matters greatly. When choices based on flat-out wrong information can literally kill people, it's vital that we fight disinformation every which way we can.

Researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a not-for-profit non-governmental organization dedicated to disrupting online hate and misinformation, and the group Anti-Vax Watch performed an analysis of social media posts that included false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines between February 1 and March 16, 2021. Of the disinformation content posted or shared more than 800,000 times, nearly two-thirds could be traced back to just 12 individuals. On Facebook alone, 73% of the false vaccine claims originated from those 12 people.

Dubbed the "Disinformation Dozen," these 12 anti-vaxxers have an outsized influence on social media. According to the CCDH, anti-vaccine accounts have a reach of more than 59 million people. And most of them have been spreading disinformation with impunity.

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With the COVID-19 Pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, and the countdown to the 2020 Presidential election, there has been a flurry of online activity.

We're tweeting about these events, we're sharing news articles about them on Facebook, and we're uploading live videos as events happen during protests. These platforms are being used to communicate, to express outrage, to share what we're witnessing on the streets, to debate ideas, and to campaign for candidates.

This isn't new, of course. Social media has long been a way to get information out quickly.

"When the plane landed on the Hudson, that was one of the first events that was social media first," says Kate Starbird, associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. "The news went out via social media first because it was faster. People could actually see what was going on long before people could write a story about it or put it on the news."

Social media has also been lauded as a way for people to get information from a variety of perspectives — everybody can share what they see.

But, she adds, "the problem is that there is some inherent risk and vulnerabilities in getting things at that speed because speed can drive misinformation and mistakes." It's also incredibly difficult to know if all of these voices on social media are real. Some of those accounts might be deliberately trying to spread disinformation.

Disinformation spreads quickly during and after natural disasters, mass shootings, and other dangerous events.

Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

In fact, for more than a decade, Starbird has been researching how misinformation and disinformation spread online during these kinds of crises.

During a crisis, there's a lot of uncertainty and fear, so we start theorizing — or rumoring — on what to do and that rumoring can create misinformation. Then, political actors can either create additional misinformation or amplify existing rumors to spread false information for political reasons. "When there's fear and anxiety, we're acutely vulnerable to politicization, misinformation, and disinformation," she says.

For example, climate science denialists can use natural disasters — such as hurricanes or winter storms — to amplify false information that supports their cause.

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