2020 – The year we failed to handle misinformation

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It has been a tough year, on multiple fronts. While many of the headlines for Year in Review roundups focus on the influence that COVID-19 has had on a myriad industries, as I come through the top news of the year, one thing keeps on cropping up – misinformation.

It is something that has become an important issue, especially when it pertains to social media and online platforms.

A catalyst for this was the US Presidential elections, which almost eight weeks on from the decision, former president Donald Trump still contests with no actual evidence of vote tampering.

In the lead up to the elections, many a social media platform pledged its support in the fight to stop the spread of misinformation, and have had varying degrees of success.

Contrasting approaches

A great example of this is how Twitter and Facebook have handled things. The latter infamously lacked the necessary follow through after Trump issued the “looting starts, shooting starts” statement in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests Stateside, opting to sit on the fence when a more definitive stance was needed.

In the months following that, it must be said that Facebook is policing its platform a bit better, but most of the damage has been done.

Twitter, on the other hand, was quite swift in labelling any tweets from Trump as misinformation when needed, often linking to credible sites with accurate information instead. Trump took issue with this, and even tried to change US legislation as a result, but it once again showed that social media is a powerful tool, whether you like it or not.

The other significant battle ground for misinformation was COVID-19 itself. Whether it be home brewed remedies, statistics and figures, or simply following government-issued regulations, the pandemic became politicised at the detriment of human life.

Once again, people took to social media to voice their opinions, and while the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube had tools in place to stop the spread of viral posts, particular pertaining to COVID-19, it does not seem enough.

Or better yet, it seems like the tools have come along too late.

Apathetic algorithms

This as people on social media will continue to follow, read and share the content they wish, regardless if it’s labelled misinformation or not.

We speak a lot about echo chambers, and the algorithms which drive people to stay “engaged” on these platforms, and what ever side of the aisle you fall on for a specific topic, you’ll likely only hear the voices you want amplified on your chosen platform.

Is the inherent design of social media flawed when it comes to handling misinformation? Perhaps, especially as when one side cries fowl, the other replies with freedom of speech.

It therefore becomes a very difficult line to tread for the capitalist-focused businesses which own or run said social media platforms.

So I increasingly wonder whether we’re placing too much hope in social media to be the bastions of truth. Yes, they should undoubtedly be bastions, as these platforms are used to share news, but are they correctly equipped to do so?

In a pandemic year, stuck at home and unable to interact face-to-face with loved ones, misinformation appears to have mutated out of control, and my inner cynic can’t help but feel it’s better to leave social media altogether.

Here’s hoping

I can only hope that 2021 will be better, but as we had similar hopes at the end of 2019, the chances are looking very slim right now.

The only thing people can do when it comes to misinformation, is take a more discerning approach, question the things you see online, and before you hit the share button, think about what doing so truly means.

I often read that retweets are not endorsements on Twitter, but when algorithms amplify highly shared content, it may as well be.

[Image – Photo by visuals on Unsplash]

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.