Misinformation and Disinformation in the Digital Information Age

Picture Credit: Cnet

Digital journalism has changed the way the world consumes news. On one hand, it has made news in all its forms (video, podcast, social media) a lot more accessible and engaging. On the other hand, the quality of news has been much more difficult to police. One unintended consequence has been the rise of highly biased reporting, misinformation or disinformation. 

The most obvious is clickbait which is the use of a misleading, false headline full of human interest or entertainment value and which is intended to draw people to a news article, social media post, blog or advertising landing page. There is a competition for reader’s attention, and usually, the most interesting information is the kind that sticks. 

Through social media and also mainstream media, this information can spread and sometimes lead to viral fake news. We saw this happen with conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19: one study shows that 800 people may have died due to misinformation regarding the disease in a period of three months. 

Many technology companies are working on AI solutions to stop fake news. In recent months, Google updated its search engine with a feature called “About this Result” which helps users check the credibility of the search results, the source of the information in the search results and information about the reputation of the source including a Wikipedia page about the source. The assumption of course is that if people are given the tools to effectively fact-check information, they are less likely to end up believing in fake news. 

Among the many problems of fake news is that it causes people to wrongly assume a certain attitude towards a topic. It can contribute to people’s biases, whether implicit or explicit. Popularity bias also occurs when you form a stronger bias toward a certain news that may be fake news based on the number of likes or views. Studies have shown that conservative people are more susceptible to fake news while liberal people have shown less of this vulnerability. However, this does not mean that conservatives are more biased than other groups. Everyone has different levels of implicit bias (automatic and unconscious bias) without realizing it.

Fake news is a big problem and according to experts, may even be a threat to national security. The misinformation that spread during presidential elections in 2016 and 2020 and throughout the pandemic of the last year demonstrates how vulnerable we all are to it. In addition to technology solutions, we also need greater education to make sure our younger generations (digital natives) learn to distinguish true news from fake, biased or misleading information.