Nieman Foundation at Harvard
What’s with the rise of “fact-based journalism”?
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April 8, 2020, 2:57 p.m.

Misinformation is not a monolith. (“The Pope endorsed Trump” from The Onion is not the same as “The Pope endorsed Trump” from your uncle on Facebook.) A lot of good work the past few years has gone into finding the right ways to classify different types.

First Draft likes to divide it into misinformation (“false content, but the person sharing doesn’t realise that it is false or misleading”), disinformation (“content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm”), and malinformation (“genuine information that is shared with an intent to cause harm”). Then there’s satire. Good information put in the wrong context. Imposter content. Top-down, bottom-up, financially motivated, politically motivated — it’s all a bit of a taxonomist’s nightmare.

In a new report out this morning, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has tried to do some of that sorting for mis-, dis-, mal-, and whatever other sorts of information are circulating around the coronavirus.

In this RISJ factsheet, we identify some of the main types, sources, and claims of COVID-19 misinformation seen so far. We analyse a sample of 225 pieces of misinformation rated false or misleading by fact-checkers and published in English between January and the end of March 2020, drawn from a collection of fact-checks maintained by First Draft News.

The report — by Oxonians J. Scott Brennen, Felix M. Simon, Philip N. Howard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen — looks at the scale, formats, sources, claims, and responses those various bits of wrongness have had so far. Some highlights:

Fact-checkers are doing what they can, but it’s all uphill. “The number of English-language fact-checks rose more than 900% from January to March. (As fact-checkers have limited resources and cannot check all problematic content, the total volume of different kinds of coronavirus misinformation has almost certainly grown even faster.)”

Most of what’s circulating is “reconfigured” misinformation, not the result of straight-up invention (à la “The Pope endorsed Trump”). Sometimes these mix a set of true and false claims in the same post; sometimes it’s a real image that’s been mislabeled with a COVID-19 connection. This is when “existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked.”

The reconfigured stuff also generated more activity on social than the pure fabrications. And there were no deepfakes, so tamp down that particular moral panic in your mind.

Being famous makes it easier to spread misinformation. (Duh.) “High-level politicians, celebrities, or other prominent public figures produced or spread only 20% of the misinformation in our sample, but that misinformation attracted a large majority of all social media engagements in the sample. While some of these instances involve content posted on social media, 36% of top-down misinformation also includes politicians speaking publicly or to the media.”

Twitter needs to step up its game. “Social media platforms have responded to a majority of the social media posts rated false in our sample. There is nonetheless very significant variation from company to company. While 59% of false posts remain active on Twitter with no direct warning label, the number is 27% for YouTube and 24% for Facebook.”

“As we have shown, there is wide variety in the types of misinformation circulating, the claims made concerning the virus, and motivations behind its production,” the authors write. “In this sense, misinformation about COVID-19 is as diverse as information about it.

“The risk in not recognising the diversity in the landscape of coronavirus misinformation is assuming there could be a single solution to this set of problems. Instead, our findings suggest there will be no silver bullet or inoculation — no ‘cure’ for misinformation about the new coronavirus. Instead, addressing the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 will take a sustained and coordinated effort by independent fact-checkers, independent news media, platform companies, and public authorities to help the public understand and navigate the pandemic.”

You can find the full report here.

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