Misinformation on social media

We hear the word a lot – misinformation. We hear about its pervasiveness on social media even more. But what does misinformation mean? What are the implications of misinformation on social media platforms? Why does misinformation pose such a threat elsewhere?

I think I should start by saying that I HATE the euphemistic term misinformation. It’s misleading. It suggests it’s misinformed. That’s what the prefix mis- tends to preclude in English words. Some lack of intention or lesser harm. Far less insidious than, say, lies or deceit. But that’s exactly what misinformation is. It’s false data or information. I do wonder why those who coin the terms for these things might have settled for misinformation. As much as I hate to admit it, I find Fake News to be a more appropriate term – it at least highlights a problematic nature with the news that has been falsified; fake connoting some undesirable quality (think of how fake is used to deride or negatively frame, for example, people, tanning products, vegan meat substitutes). Like most things, I’m finding the need to use literal language to avoid minimising or trivialising the issue. As fun and creative as figurative language is, it often results in dampening the urgency or gravity of a situation. We need to call these instances of false information what they are, not only to highlight them as a problem but to consider why they are occurring with what appears to be exponential frequency and danger. In other words, where is this happening with the intention of lying and consequently causing harm?

On social media, misinformation largely refers to articles shared by users which are not factually accurate. An issue with social media information sharing is the platform’s inability to fact-check. You usually have to leave the platform to check out the facts. For several reasons, we have grown to take our social media information at face value, not going off-platform to research the claims of clickbaity headlines, Tumblr conversations or curiously images with blocks of text lacking any references. Despite the dubious nature of these items, we still feel compelled to believe them – because why would anyone lie?

We know, however, that this flaw in our social media use is absolutely used against us. Carole Cadwalladr presented evidence of the Brexit campaign’s misinformation use in Facebook ads which undoubtedly influenced many people’s decisions in the vote. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently applauded for her targeted questioning of Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook’s lack of fact-checking capabilities on political ads, despite evidence of political ads publishing blatant lies and doctored statistics to influence voting in the last election.

Facebook has recently implemented fact checking on some posts where the information is queried so users can be reassured or dissuaded from sharing posts. But Facebook is one platform – the issue goes much further.

Instagram in particular has become a hub for educational resources (I recently wrote about some of the issues I have with knowledge sharing on social media). Anyone can access Canva and create aesthetically pleasing images with text in funky fonts, make reasonably argued claims and publish them for the world to share and repost without any investigation. Without a large enough audience, it’s impossible to include Swipe Up links in Instagram Stories to direct people to further reading or resources. We all get a website URL we can use, but how many people actually click through? Part of the problem is the functionality of Instagram forces users to exit the app if they want to find more information on a topic – user psychology predicts that people would rather stay in-app and keep scrolling. That’s why Instagram created a web browser experience for Swipe Up links that doesn’t require you to jump to another app like Chrome; it happens within Instagram itself. We’ve been conditioned by these apps’ design to expect information to be brought to us, not for us to go out seeking it. And who would prefer to switch apps (a clunky user experience at the best of times) when they could take the easy route and keep scrolling to find other aesthetically pleasing grid pic with big statements in bold font.

Of course, there’s also the issue of referencing and sources for these educational content squares. While many educators and content creators do reference and acknowledge where information comes from, transparency is difficult to maintain on platforms like Instagram. Largely because they weren’t built for this use – although Insta HQ devs could definitely tackle this problem if the company’s owners (Facebook) cared enough.

WhatsApp is another platform – whether you consider it inherently *social media* or not – that we need to think about. Communities globally use WhatsApp in different ways, but group chats are a common feature across the world. And in these group chats, you often see viral content shared and repurposed. But WhatsApp has no feature for fact-checking or flagging misinformation before the content is forwarded to another chat. And with its perceived distance from the internet/Google Chrome, are we even less likely to leave the app and check out the claims of a meme or supposedly screenshotted image of advice from an unnamed doctor who advises drinking lots of water will dissolve COVID-19 and save our immune systems?

So what can we do to combat misinformation on social media?

Firstly, we can be more conscious of the information we’re consuming and think more critically about what it’s telling us. This isn’t really anything new – people have been sceptical of The Media (namely newspapers, more recently the BBC) and the biases or skewed perceptions they have portrayed of certain issues, especially as they relate to governments and powerful companies or individuals. We can definitely apply this scepticism (while avoiding falling down a full on conspiracy rabbit hole) to social media content, particularly paid ads or sponsored content. However that puts the onus on us as users, which, in my opinion, errs on the side of victim blaming; “It’s your responsibility to stay vigilant of your surroundings and whose content you consume” has echoes of “Don’t walk home by yourself to avoid being attacked” and other harmful rhetorics laid at the feet of victims of rape culture.

Instead, you can push content creators to include more transparency in sharing their sources. Gently remind your friends who keep sharing posts without any evidence to back up claims that they should be fact-checking before hitting the Share button. For ads or content that looks suspicious, report it to the platform; put the onus on them to improve their safety mechanisms. There are regularly petitions circulating to push the Government to regulate social media platforms (especially around political advertising) – sign those petitions.

I realise that these are still actions you have to take, but they don’t focus on policing your own actions or force you to keep yourself safe, instead they bring others into the conversation to tackle this issue from a number of angles. This multi-angle approach is crucial if we’re going to see any real change for the better when it comes to tackling the deluge of false information spreading through social media.

Being aware and having your eyes wide open is really important here. It’s exhausting; it’s tedious; it’s infuriating when you realise just how flawed so many of these systems are. Those aren’t reasons to remain complacent. The information is there. The proof of lies being spread via social media is abundant. We have a duty as digital citizens and as app users to take ownership of our own media consumption, and by extension, our exposure to education and information gathering.

EDITED ON 13TH AUGUST TO ADD
The BBC published a news article on 12th August 2020:‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 misinformation.

At least 800 people died around the world because of coronavirus-related mininformation in the first three months of this year…about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media. Many died from drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products. They wrongly believed the products to be a cure for the virus.

Alistair Coleman, BBC News

So misinformation is not just dangerous politically, but potentially lethal. The findings of this research is surely enough to highlight the very real threat of embodied harm that misinformation poses, even if the purposefully false political advertising doesn’t strike you as wholly problematic.

My Mental Health – A Reflection

It’s World Mental Health Day. More than just a hashtag, for many it’s the one day a year that provides open dialogue they rarely get to experience otherwise about their mental health.

Today, I thought I’d share 6 things I learned (sometimes the hard way) about depression, anxiety and self-perception.

Until I started experiencing it, I had no real clue what depression was. I had friends who’d lived through it, or who were experiencing it there and then, but I never really understood it. I certainly wasn’t prepared to face the embarrassing truth that I believed much of the stigma and prejudice and stereotyping that I hated in other people’s uneducated rhetoric.

Happiness

This is probably the most ridiculous one, but I didn’t know that I could be depressed and happy. I didn’t understand that depression could still allow me to genuinely enjoy things. I didn’t think the anxiety tearing my brain apart would give me time for laughter.

Looking back, I’m pretty ashamed to see how deeply ingrained some serious prejudices were in my understanding of mental health. Hopefully, with more open discussion and better education on the subject, others won’t have this realisation smack them in the face the same way I did.


(credit: Veronica Dearly, one of my fave artists on Instagram)

Sex

I didn’t know that I could be depressed and horny.

Despite feeling trapped in a pit of despair and emptiness, I could still want and enjoy sex. That took some getting used to. It does make sense, though. There’s a rush of endorphins released during sex. That feeling is addictive.

I was definitely not prepared for my anxiety to kill my libido, though. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t orgasm because my brain was too busy running so fast I could barely understand all the information it was throwing at me. I couldn’t switch off and just enjoy being in the moment. I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who is incredibly understanding and who refuses to let shame enter into that mortifying conversation.


(credit: Gemma Correll)

It’s not a conversation many people are comfortable having, but it needs to be talked about more. Like every other aspect of your life, mental ill health will very likely affect your sex life. Coming to terms with that can be frustrating, embarrassing, upsetting and a million other things. Give yourself time and allow your mind to catch with the horn your body is throwing down. You’ll get there. And then you can get back to doing the sex.

(I would apologise to any family/friends/strangers who feel weird about this section, but I’m not sorry. Sex happens. We’re adults. Your discomfort feeds into the lack of discussion. It’s time we get over our discomfort around sex and get honest.)

 

Energy

I’ve been tired before, but depression doesn’t make you tired. Depression leeches every iota of energy from your being and leaves a husk of a human behind. A human who still has to get up in the morning and function and go to work because there are bills to pay. Depression left me feeling empty a lot of the time. Spoon theory can apply to mental ill health and sometimes this accurately explains how my days go when I’m not well.


(credit: Gemma Correll – a brilliant artist with endlessly relatable Instagram uploads)

Filled to the Brim and Endlessly Empty

I didn’t know I could feel more than just depression. I didn’t know that I could feel nothing but depression. I didn’t understand how my head and heart could be a cacophony of emotion and feeling and mess and noise that would overwhelm me to the point of tears.

The way I describe it is a runaway train where you can hear and feel all the passengers’ thoughts and feelings, while your heart keeps in time with the ever-quickening wheels. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.


(credit: Gemma Correll)

Self-care

It took me a while to get to grips with self-care. Understanding that calling devouring a tub of ice cream is not necessarily self-care, but it’s also not something to agonise over for hours after. Finding healthy routines to practice as self-care took a while and I’m still bad at keeping up with them. There are days where getting in the shower seems so arduous the thought reduces me to tears. But I know that taking the time to wash and condition my hair and use my yummy-smelling body wash always makes me feel better. I have to push through the fog and continue the routine.


(image source)

Cross stitching, reading, adult colouring in books. They all give me a little time to be productive while also contributing to self-improvement in some fashion, reducing the guilt I’d otherwise feel for not spending my time doing more “worthwhile” things.

Getting back into musical theatre has been incredible too. Pushing me out of my comfort zone again, forcing myself to socialise and surround myself with music and activities I love.


(credit: Gemma Correll)

One thing I wasn’t prepared to have to do, though, was to step back from friendships that weren’t good for my mental health, no matter how much I loved the people. It’s hard accepting that someone is bad for you, but you have to make yourself the most important thing. Toxic relationships only work to undo the effort you put into your wellbeing. Assessing the health of your relationships is difficult, but can be incredibly freeing when you are able to lessen the strain that relationship had on your health.

Love

I wasn’t prepared for the good days to feel so damn incredible and my heart feel like it could burst because it was so full of love. I certainly couldn’t imagine that people could still love me despite me not loving myself. It can be hard not pushing those people away in a fit of shame and anger – how do they see something worth loving when I can’t? I’m learning that my perception of myself and the world can be skewed by depression and anxiety. That, no matter how real it might seem, Tam is in fact just sleeping and not silently fuming at you for not saying “I love you” 9 times instead of 8 that day. That, despite the many niggling thoughts of unworthiness I have, I am really worth people’s time. I actually do have a lot to offer. I’m a lot more capable than I sometimes give myself credit for.


(credit: Veronica Dearly)

While I don’t always feel like I have fight left in me, I don’t want to be this way forever. Especially when there are other, far more important things in my life I’d rather focus my energy on.

At the end of the day, regardless of the state of my mental health, I’m still me. And I think that’s the thing I was most surprised to learn.

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