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Episode 17: The year of misinformation and its impact on COVID-19

Newspaper with headline Fake News

As the global pandemic continues, more people than ever are turning to all forms of digital media for their news. The reliability of that information, especially in the wake of a health crisis, has many top officials and doctors worried. Canada's chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, has even said that misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading faster than the virus itself. 

In this episode, Professor Anatoliy Gruzd, opens in new window discusses the prevalence of misinformation in 2020 and the best ways to inoculate ourselves against it. Gruzd is the director of research at the Social Media Lab at the Ted Rogers School of Management and is also the Canada Research Chair in Privacy Preserving Digital Technologies. He touches on the ways misinformation has impacted the U.S. Presidential election, the rise of "home grown" misinformation groups and his expectations for when the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out.

Visit the Social Media Lab's COVID-19 Misinformation portal, external link, opens in new window for resources on how to track and be aware of misinformation online. 

See below for the graph Professor Gruzd references in this episode.

COVID-19 graph from Facebook mentions
Podcast Transcript – Episode 17: The year of misinformation and its impact on COVID-19  
Nadine Habib: From the corner of Bay and Dundas in downtown Toronto, this is Like Nobody's Business, a podcast of thought leadership and business innovation. I'm your host, Nadine Habib. As the global pandemic continues, more people than ever are turning to all forms of online media for their news. The reliability of that information, especially in the wake of a health crisis, has many top officials and doctors worried. In this episode of Like Nobody's Business, I discuss misinformation in 2020 with Professor Anatoliy Gruzd. He is the Director of the Social Media Lab at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and is also the Canada Research Chair in Privacy Preserving Digital Technologies. We talk about why misinformation seems more prevalent now than it has ever been before, how it's impacted the 2020 presidential election, and if misinformation really is spreading faster than the virus itself.

Well, hi, Anatoliy, thank you for joining me.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Hello, Nadine.
Nadine Habib: So, I just want to start off by asking a very simple question and maybe it's a simple question with a complicated answer. But I feel like this year, especially, I have seen and heard and read so much more about misinformation than I have ever before. And there's reporters now, who just cover misinformation specifically, and there's a lot of centers that come out, and they research misinformation specifically as well. And so, my question is, is the spreading of misinformation new? Is it just another word for propaganda? What's your take?
Anatoliy Gruzd: Well, to answer your question, let's just kind of step back and talk broadly about what people use social media for, and specifically this year because we've really seen uptake in social media use and users around when officially pandemic started in March and official lockdown orders begin. We really saw more and more people using social media websites to connect with friends, family members, coworkers, to get news about COVID and also other information that they need to keep going and not to feel socially isolated. And so this, for example, as charts here shows you the number of messages that's related to COVID that people posted publicly on Facebook and the number of interactions they had. And you can see there are nearly 20 billion interactions since the beginning of the pandemic related to COVID. And this is just counting the public social media posts on Facebook. Similar trends were observed here in Canada and also similar trends were observed in terms of the uptake in social media use and users across other social media platforms.
Anatoliy Gruzd: And it is understandable because once we were all locked down and at home, social media emerged as a place for people to socialize. But of course, the increasing reliance on social media is not without its problem. And we know from previous research and other instances, not just COVID, that social media is well-established as a vector for the spreading all kinds of misinformation, including misinformation about the pandemic. And so this brings us to this notion of infodemic. Essentially this year, and perhaps this is what you and others experience in the mainstream media and elsewhere, essentially we experience avalanche of both misinformation and credible information about the pandemic and that contributes, of course, to our confusion. What is right? What is not? It can, but it also can undermine the work of public health officials. It can put us and frontline workers at risk of contracting or spreading misinformation, and it can actually subject us to becoming victims of identity thefts and data breaches, and not just a health-related danger.
Anatoliy Gruzd: So essentially, I think the combination of both the availability of information about the virus and the pandemic and the fact that we're always learning something new about the virus, plus the fact that there are also bad actors who contribute knowingly or unknowingly to the spread of misinformation and misleading information makes us feel and perceive that it's more of it this year than usual.
Nadine Habib: Right. Right. It leads into my second question, which is that Dr. Theresa Tam, who's Canada's chief public health doctor has said that the spreading of fake news and misinformation is spreading at a faster rate than the virus is, which is a pretty big statement. So do you agree with that? If so, why is that happening? And is there any key things that you found really alarming when it comes to misinformation regarding the pandemic?
Anatoliy Gruzd: So when we talk about spread of information and information on social media, we need to keep in mind that social media platforms were designed to spread information as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. So as a result, the same features that are used by celebrities and other influential social media users to reach their audience is also being used to spread misinformation. So it does make sense when somebody will say that, well, misinformation spreads just as quickly or even maybe faster than the actual pandemic in that way, that essentially if you put a false and misleading content online, it can go viral. It doesn't necessarily mean it would. And a lot of the efforts over the past few months were put in play by platforms, as well as public health officials to combat, to fight misinformation related to COVID.
Nadine Habib: And it's interesting because I know that you and other fellow researchers at the Social Media Lab at Ryerson have been looking at misinformation when it came to the 2016 presidential election. And so I know that you guys have looked at that extensively and looked at how foreign operatives actually influenced the election and how fast it took place across social media, people picking up on the misinformation and sharing it. What have you seen that's different when it comes to the 2020 election, if anything has changed at all?
Anatoliy Gruzd: So I think a lot has changed since 2016. And this is when we learn that social media can be weaponized and was weaponized by foreign entities to influence election outcomes or intentions of people, how they vote, specifically during the 2016 US presidential election and 2016 Brexit referendum. During that time, a lot of the interference by foreign actors was in the form of creating an account on social media, multiple accounts and using automated scripts to spread certain type of information or misinformation that supports their candidates or the candidates they want to win, or just generally to raise the unrest level in a particular country like in the US. What we've seen this time around, that it's a lot of misinformation and misleading content being spread by homegrown groups. So essentially, people who are within the country, either if we're talking about Canada or the States. There's enough of partisanship in the US that you have people on the extreme left and extreme right side of the political spectrum who are ready and willing to share all kinds of content that would support their candidate or their party.
Anatoliy Gruzd: So essentially what we're observing, perhaps, not to say that there might not be foreign interference in terms of social media engagement about the election, but there's enough of the homegrown, shall we say talent, on social media, who would already pick up and spread those false claims and false misinformation. And that of course creates challenges for platforms like Twitter and like Facebook in terms of do you fact-check, do you label and flag all the messages that are not actually correct on their platforms? Do you block them? Do you suspend users? So those are real challenges that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are facing right now.
Nadine Habib: It's funny because that leads into my next question, which is on social media giants and are they doing enough because Twitter will flag a post that President Trump has tweeted and then Facebook won't do the same. So Facebook will get some backlash. It's hard to know, are they doing enough?
Anatoliy Gruzd: And I think platforms, they are taking cues from policymakers as well as the public. And if they feel enough pressure, they then engage in image management, but also implementation of features that really trying to slow down the spread of misinformation. And we've seen a number of attempts, but from social media platforms ahead to combat misinformation from making links available to credible sources. Let's say you go to Twitter and you look for messages related to COVID-19, or same with Facebook or YouTube, and right away on top of your screen, you will see a link to a credible link to the public health agency in Canada website, where you can find all the information. Of course, we don't know if that link that will lead you to credible source, whether people will actually follow it, how useful it is, but it does show that it is an attempt by platforms to at least offer cross-validation to link to credible sources, every time somebody wants to learn about election results in the US right now, or pandemic in general, in the particular country.
Anatoliy Gruzd: So that's just one feature that we've seen was introduced by most of the platforms right now. Again, we don't know if it's effective or will be effective. Time will tell. Other features essentially is too platforms trying to implement is to work with fact-checking organization. And so in one of the projects that we currently doing with World Health Organization, we trying to understand this ecosystem of fact-checking organizations, who are truly digital frontline workers against in the fight against any COVID-related misinformation. And so these are the organizations, many of them nonprofit, some of them are affiliated with the media organizations. So they are essentially constantly keeping an eye on false and misleading claims about the COVID. And they're putting out information about why certain claims are not credible and linking people to credible sources. So social media platforms trying to provide support to different fact-checking organizations. So that was a positive sign overall. What the most challenging part for platforms is, of course, if misleading or false information is being spread by politicians or other elected officials, presidents, prime ministers of the world.
Anatoliy Gruzd: And so that creates a lot of challenges because now you have somebody in power like President Trump, who is saying something that platforms may label as misleading or outright false. And if the platform trying to block or label that message, the person in power can actually essentially hurt them going forward by putting in place legislation that make the work of platform much, much harder the way it is. So essentially there are multiple fronts that platforms are confronting, whether they doing enough, time will tell, but certainly we still seeing misinformation out there, whether we're talking about COVID-related misinformation or politically motivated misinformation, we have to learn to live with it. And just like we're learning to live with the virus right now, COVID virus. And we're learning to develop our hygiene practices and wearing masks and perhaps not aggregating, not staying inside the public spaces for too long.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Same thing. We have to develop similar practices for digital hygiene, shall we say? So essentially every time you encounter a piece of information, whether it's about politics or about the pandemic, a good practice would be to go to trusted sources to validate it's somebody who you trust such as CBC or other mainstream news channels or public health authorities to actually confirm what was said in that post. And so, unless you confirm it, don't rush to repost it and re-share a certain content, especially if it's sensational in nature.
Nadine Habib: If we go back to misinformation regarding COVID, was that homegrown misinformation, as you were saying, people who were skeptical and spreading that misinformation, does it come from outside? How does it usually start?
Anatoliy Gruzd: Well, there are many, many channels of information, misinformation about COVID and many actors who spread it. To highlight some of it, I want to take you to a project we're currently doing where we examining all different fact-check claims about COVID, that fact-checking organizations around the world capture. And by manually reviewing those claims, we can categorize them into different topics. And that will tell you who's spreading it potentially, what was the motivation for spreading it and how to combat that, how to fight against that. So we have identified 11 common types of COVID-related false claims, and the most common type is claims related to a particular country like Canada, any big claims about the number of cases, the number of death. There could be claims about what our public officials said about the virus. And so, that's of course the largest category. That would be a responsibility of the public health authorities in a particular country to try to educate people and inform them about the proper statistics, what's happening in the country.
But then you see the second largest category is about diagnostics, prevention and cures. And that one includes claims about what potentially whether or not just something can cure coronavirus or claims around safety of future COVID-19 vaccine. And those claims going to circulate around the world. They are not specific to a particular country, and they often picked out by people in different countries, depending on whether or not there is a spike in cases so whether or not people actually concerned about and trying to pay more attention to these types of claims. Then you have the third group is about speculating on their virus origin or various conspiracy theories from a conspiracy theory that supposedly 5g technology is somehow linked to the cases, the spread of COVID-19 around the world, which is not true.
Nadine Habib: I remember that was a misconception early on during the pandemic.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Indeed.
Nadine Habib: That along with drinking bleach.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Well, in fact, some of them are circulating and coming back.
Nadine Habib: Really?
Anatoliy Gruzd: They may be changing. People who share them may change language. So if you saw it in English or French in Canada, somebody in Chile or Brazil, Spain, then translating those claims in their own language and reusing some of the same fake pictures that might be representing whatever they're trying to say in their own context so as if it's something new. And so that's why by examining what's been circulated before, it will give people idea of what potentially to expect going forward. But as you can see, many different types and behind each type, different stakeholders.
Nadine Habib: And do you find that as people become more aware of this, as the pandemic goes on, we’ll be better equipped to recognize it going forward? What are your expectations, I guess, for when the vaccine rolls around? And I'm sure that's going to be a whole other slew of conspiracy theories and a lot of misinformation going around with that.
Anatoliy Gruzd: This is our hope. We have a team of social science researchers, computational researchers in the Social Media Lab. And we all hope that yes, by looking at number of examples of types of false claims that are currently circulating, people will, what we call, inoculate themselves against future misinformation. But of course, that doesn't prevent people from being tricked from new types of false claims. And you mentioned a future vaccine, so hopefully we will have one that is effective, but already you can see there's a group of anti-vaccination communities on the internet who are well-organized, and they already questioning the safety of a future COVID-19 vaccine. And so you can see that group is very, very organized and very motivated as the messages ranges from supposedly there's a conspiracy theory that this future vaccine is to control the population. Some false claims in this area will talk about how there will be supposedly microchip built into the vaccine. So everybody who will get the vaccine would be micro chipped and controlled and tracked in the future. So you can see- [crosstalk]
Nadine Habib: Sounds like the script out of a movie.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Indeed. And there are people who honestly believe it or use it to scare people. There are certainly legitimate concerns about the safety of future vaccine. And we've seen some countries trying to rush the process of the testing of COVID-19 so there are legitimate concerns but in between, you also see those extreme points, and that's why there's so such a big, importance for public health authorities to reach out to people through different channels and not just social media, but different channels to tell them what it is what's happening, what to expect in terms of the timeline, in terms of how effective they think the vaccine is going to be and so.
Nadine Habib: Well, thank you so much, Anatoliy. That was very informative. Appreciate it.
Anatoliy Gruzd: Great chatting with you.
Nadine Habib: Like Nobody's Business is a presentation of Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. For more information about TRSM, visit ryerson.ca/tedrogersschool. Thank you for listening.