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Dr Peter Gonsalves – Disinformation in Social Media
in the context of COVID-19

Gonsalves profile LEMag Feb 2021

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Live Encounters Magazine February 2021

Peter Gonsalves, PhD, is a priest and a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco. He teaches Media Education and Peace Communication in the Faculty of the Sciences of Social Communication at Salesian University, Rome. He is the author of the Gandhian trilogy ─ Clothing for Liberation (Sage 2010), Khadi: Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion (Sage 2012) and Gandhi and the Popes – from Pius XI to Francis (Peter Lang, 2015). Since 2017, he is a member of the international board of consultants for the Communication Dicastery at the Vatican. He may be visited at www.petergonsalves.in and academia.edu.

An online-presentation for the 25th Annual Meeting of the  Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), Manila, November 19 to 20, 2020


For those of us in South-East Asia, the information age had its advent in the late 1990s. We were filled with hope then, as we looked forward to being active participants in the digital revolution in the cause of development and peace. Twenty years later, we are perhaps warily aware that the information ecosystem, almost taken for granted and upon which we have come to depend, can no longer be deemed entirely trustworthy and is getting increasingly complex and dangerous. The situation today is even more alarming with Covid-19 taking centre stage.

The reality

The website of the World Health Organization (WHO) – the principal point of reference for this presentation – has been keeping people updated on a daily basis. Its regional statistics across the globe reveal that on November 14, 2020 the Americas were most affected (22,707,430 confirmed cases), Europe was next (14,487,598), South-East Asia followed (9,964, 225) with the Eastern Mediterranean (3,512,233), African (1,387,010) and Western Pacific regions (793,437) in tow.[1]

Reports received by WHO on a single day, November 14, 2020, at 9.46 am CET, indicate that globally new cases were 365,198; confirmed cases were 52,852,674; and deaths were 1,295,328.[2]

These numbers above demonstrate that the pandemic is real and not, as some still believe, a conspiracy created by those who wish to profit from generating fear and the possibility of millions being affected.[3] From the months that have vanished under the COVID cloud, we have learned the following:

  • We are all vulnerable to the virus. It spares none.
  • We are all interconnected and interdependent. (e. g. individuals and society, young and old, hospitals and banks, patients and medical staff, life and death, etc.)
  • Before the commencement of the year 2020, most of us had taken our ‘normal’ lives for granted (e.g. The gifts of breathing clean air, degrees of proximity/intimacy, employment, etc.). Now we have been constrained to adapt to the ‘new normal’.
  • Masks and social distancing work – they prevent saliva droplets considered major viral carriers.
  • Disinformation, supported by social media technology, is higher than ever before.

My presentation will concentrate on this last phenomenon. In the limited time I have, I will restrict my sharing to the problematic. I will merely hint at a solution, so as not to tread on the areas allotted to speakers after me, some of whom would have the onus of explaining ways to tackle the disinformation-bull by the horns.

Disinformation is gargantuan indeed. The WHO calls it an infodemic – an occurrence of stupendous magnitude, a cause for urgent concern comparable only to the pandemic itself. Statistics reveal that in the month of March alone, 361,000,000 videos were uploaded on YouTube under the “COVID-19” and “COVID 19” classification; about 19,200 articles had been published in Google Scholar since the pandemic started; around 550 million tweets included the terms coronavirus, corona virus, covid19, covid-19, covid_19, or pandemic.[4] Due to the sheer volume, extension and rapidity of information available on social media and traditional mass media, we have been confronted by a global reality never ever witnessed  earlier. On September 23, 2020, international humanitarian associations sent out a joint statement to leaders of the world requesting their collaboration in a document titled Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation.[5]

Terminology – from infodemic to infocalypse

If the WHO has called the disinformation linked to the COVID phenomenon an ‘infodemic’, the UNESCO uses the word ‘disinfodemic’. What are the varied meanings of similar terms/synonyms employed to describe the type of information shared across social media?

Dictionary meanings converge on the difference between the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. The former means ‘incorrect information’. The latter, however, is ‘the deliberate spreading of misleading information’. The term ‘fake news’ was popularized in 2016 to imply ‘news that is not authentic’; or ‘untrue information presented as news’. ‘Rumours’ are ‘a mixture of truth and untruth passed around verbally’.[6]

On social media platforms, disinformation comes in different forms and is described variously as ‘questionable accuracy content,’ ‘conspiracy theories,’ ‘clickbait,’ ‘hyper partisan content,’ ‘pseudoscience,’ ‘fabricated news,’ ‘fake news,’ etc.

We are on the threshold of yet another type of disinformation, more dangerous and difficult to deal with than the types that preceded it. In authenticating the veracity of a datum, photographs were once proof until ‘Photoshop’ appeared on the scene. Then videography replaced the photograph. Videoclips, Webcams and CCTV cameras are currently indubitably being accepted as recordings of reality itself. Now, however, even this sliver of credibility is about to be taken away from us. We have to get ready for the coming of ‘deep fakes’ or what Aviv Ovadya calls the Information Apocalypse[7] and Nina Schick calls Infocalypse.[8] The algorithms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are already here, and malicious agents are working at publishing statements or actions of adversaries that the latter have never uttered or done simply to compromise their moral reputation.[9] Ovadya’s prognosis is alarming: “What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?” Or, what would happen if the credibility of a true fact is easily doubted? “It’ll only take a couple of big hoaxes to really convince the public that nothing’s real.” For instance, “[y]ou don’t need to create the fake video for this tech[nology] to have a serious impact. You just point to the fact that the tech exists and you can impugn the integrity of the stuff that’s real.”[10] From “what is truth?” we are sliding downward to “Can truth be proved at all?” In the infocalypse, everything is false until proven true. The rise of autocracy around the world bodes ill for the planet: the infocalypse has already begun.[11]

Myths and their effects

Spreading myths about COVID are ever on the increase. A page dedicated to busting myths on the WHO website mentions 30 different myths.[12] It is possible that such myths have been diffused by well-meaning agents concerned about assisting others in preventing the spread of the viral infection. The problem, however, is that their solutions have not been scientifically verified. Some of them can do more harm than good by making it difficult for people, decision makers, and health workers to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. (By sources we mean apps, scientific organizations, websites, blogs, “influencers,” and more…) The infodemic can thus impact those decision-making processes where immediate answers are sought and not enough time has been allotted to deeply analyse the evidence. People may feel anxiety, depression, be overwhelmed, feel emotionally drained, and may be unable to meet important demands. Most of all, the data shared in the infodemic has no quality control on what is published, and sometimes, on what has been used to take action and make decisions. Anybody can write or publish anything on the web (podcasts, articles, etc.), in particular on social media channels (individual and institutional accounts) which can tragically affect ignorant or gullible users.[13]

Causes of the Infodemic:

Notwithstanding the amount of good we are capable of contributing to building a global community, human existence has been plagued with misunderstandings, half-remembered facts, and biases. Psychological or cognitive bias has always been the root cause of our poor judgements in relation to the information we access and consume. This in turn, makes us respond to facts or information we encounter in ways that are not always rational. Often influenced by subliminal prejudices, we seldom have a rational relationship to information and are more prone to allowing our emotions rule the roost. These biases inadvertently entangle us in logical fallacies, some of which have consequences, albeit minor. The major ones morph into tragedies that can impair/cost the lives of individuals, families and society at large. Malicious actors capitalize on online confusion, fear, and sorrow for profit and political gain, intentionally spreading falsehoods and conspiracy by stoking the emotional engagement of social media users. In a press release, the WHO with the UN made an appeal to all nations:

We can beat COVID-19 only with facts, science and community solidarity. Misinformation is perpetuating stigma and discrimination and must not come in the way of ensuring that human rights are protected and people at risk and those marginalized have access to health and social protection services.[14]

Some examples of discrimination fuelling the pandemic are: the stigmatization of Asian people residing or working in Europe and America following the outbreak of the virus in China in early February 2020;[15] the rise of xenophobic speeches against immigrants in Italy by the political far-right who were against immigration years before the pandemic began;[16] the increase in caste discrimination in some parts of India[17] and a political party’s promise to deliver free vaccines in exchange for votes before the Bihar elections.[18]

Another cause of the infodemic is the technological bias. The thing that can affect some of the negative attributes of social media is the structure of technology itself. Social media is a public platform on which anyone, including news outlets, can post anything without being accountable for fact-checking. Furthermore, the thought that ‘technology is just technology’ or the idea that mere content matters – not the medium through which it is communicated – is not true. Marshall McLuhan reminded us that “the medium is the massage”[19]. As such, people are lured to alter their perceptions, opinions, identities, lifestyles, relationships, … in ways that they have never experienced before and in a manner that many of them are not even aware of.

Indeed, information about COVID-19 impacts our lifestyles for better or worse, depending on the content to which we are exposed. The algorithms that determine what content we see are meant to reward our emotional responses and create echo chambers. We begin to encounter only beliefs or opinions that coincide with our own interests, so that our existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered. (We see what we like and we like what we see. Then we post more of the same to gain more likes.)

As if pampering the ego were not enough, the algorithms that profile similarities in preferences bring people with shared interests together (just as Facebook shows you requests from friends of friends, or relatives of relatives, or artists with artists, etc..). Thus, filter bubbles are formed. We, who enjoy the comfort of our echo chambers, open up only to others we are comfortable with, with no desire to interact with those outside our bubble. Meanwhile the technology pushes deeper into our pockets by fine-tuning the filters of our choices. As Johnathan Stray, a journalist on the AI beat says, the algorithms “continually explore the boundaries of your interests, looking for what you didn’t know you wanted.”[20]

Knowing what we have explained above makes it easier to put the blame for the current polluted information ecosystem on the technologies of social media.  Indeed, technology is an amplifier of human intentions, but at its heart, the darkest manifestations of social media are precisely intentions that are all too human.

The FABC response?

With regard to solutions, I do not wish to usurp the time and the ideas of speakers who follow this presentation. However, permit me to suggest that much can be done by educating Church members and our institutional policy makers to implement the procedures suggested by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) that works in tandem with WHO. These can become personal and community rules, which will certainly go a long way in order to ‘flatten the infodemic curve’.[21]

  1. Work with WHO.
  2. Avoid fake news.[22]
  3. Identify evidence underlying the information shared.
  4. Respect privacy.
  5. Confirm that the information has been shared before by other people.
  6. Confirm the source, in particular the threads on WhatsApp.
  7. If the information is not confirmed, it is better not to share it.
  8. Share information responsibly.
  9. Report harmful rumours.[23]
  10. Participate responsibly in social conversations.
  11. Continue collaborating.
  12. Keep learning.
  13. Examine if the information really adds up (is worth diffusing to others) even if it is from a secure source and has been shared before.

The effects of responsible sharing or not sharing information can save lives, as demonstrated in this diagram from the WHO website.

I hasten to add, the principles for dealing with disinformation shared above are not at all new. Some of them have been part of the critical education against media disinformation ever since the 1960s. McLuhan, a convert to Catholicism and a practising one at that, was recognized widely as the prophet of the electric age, and, at the end of the last century, as the prophet of the internet age. Here is one of his many prophecies made in 1967: “Ours is a brand-new world of all-at-once-ness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a ‘global village’… a simultaneous happening. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously.”[24] Thanks to his foresight and his Centre for Culture and Technology at Toronto, he received a growing number of offers from other universities spread chiefly across English-speaking countries. They turned critical awareness and analysis of media consumption and production for responsible citizenship into the Media Education (ME) movement (similar to Media Literacy or Media Information Literacy, Digital Information Literacy, etc.) which, encouraged by Church documents[25], began in a number of Church-run institutions all over the world, as well as in South-East Asia. Of the latter, we may mention PAME (Philippine Association for Media Education), the ME manuals of the Salesians of Don Bosco in South Asia and the Philippines, and the various ME initiatives in the FABC region by members of SIGNIS (formerly UNDA-OCIC).

One of our responses to the global infodemic can be the strengthening of these already existing centres of Media Literacy and, perhaps, an updating of their involvement in the urgent issues of our time, such as the infodemic of fake news, stigmatization, injustice and the deep-fakes caused by AI that is soon to be upon us.

ME or Media Information Literacy is one of the sure ways to help digital natives and future citizens of our countries become alert and conscientious leaders today for vibrant democracies tomorrow. It is an opportunity that the Church-as-a-whole cannot afford to squander in yet another battle[26] for the rights of humanity against the might of technology in the hands of the wrong people.

Thank You all for your patient listening.

[1] WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard, 2020/11/14, https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAnb79BRDgARIsAOVbhRpjt1qLi3Eu5sR9NvttSsb7nvL8KCYd4vSNSTjsrhKNBbUxLMLEL1oaAoTbEALw_wcB

[2] WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard, 2020/11/14, 3:59pm CET. https://covid19.who.int/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAnb79BRDgARIsAOVbhRpjt1qLi3Eu5sR9NvttSsb7nvL8KCYd4vSNSTjsrhKNBbUxLMLEL1oaAoTbEALw_wcB

[3] Some think that COVID-19 is a conspiracy theory designed by pharmaceutical companies. Cf. Identifying Conspiracy Theories, European Commission website,  https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/fighting-disinformation/identifying-conspiracy-theories_en (23-11-2020)

[4] Cf. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in https://iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/52052/Factsheet-infodemic_eng.pdf?sequence=14&isAllowed=y  (24-11-2020).

[5] The joint statement was made by WHO, UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, ITU, UN Global Pulse, and IFRC. Cf. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation (22-11-2020)

[6] The reference is The Free Dictionary by Farlex, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/ (01-11-2020).

[7] Cf. Charlie Warzel, He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis. Now He’s Worried About An Information Apocalypse, 11-02-2018, in https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/charliewarzel/the-terrifying-future-of-fake-news (21-11-2020).

[8] Cf. also Nina Schik, Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse, Grand Central Publishing, 2020.

[9] See the video by Supasorn Suwajanakorn et al., Synthesizing Obama: Learning Lip Sync from Audio, SIGGRAPH 2017 in https://youtu.be/MVBe6_o4cMI (21-11-2020)

[10] All citations of Ovadya are from, Warzel, He Predicted The 2016 Fake News Crisis.

[11] The good news, however, is a solution to identify deepfake videos is being developed. Cf. Reality Defender 2020 a force against deepfakes, https://rd2020.org/index.html (20-11-2020)

A non-partisan and non-commercial effort to help reporters and campaigns uphold truth and ethical standards.

[12] Cf. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Mythbusters in https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters (12-11-2020)

[13] Cf. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Mythbusters.

[14] WHO-UN PRESS RELEASE: COVID-19 pandemic: countries urged to take stronger action to stop spread of harmful information, 23-09-2020, in UNAIDS, https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/presscentre/pressreleaseandstatementarchive/2020/september/20200923_infodemic (14-11-2020)

[15] Katherine J. Roberto et al., Stigmatization and prejudice during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Administrative Theory & Praxis, Vol 42/3 (2020) 364-378,  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10841806.2020.1782128?src=recsys (23-11-2020)

[16] Annalisa Merelli – Luca Powell, Coronavirus is actually hurting Italian fake news and xenophobic propaganda, in Quartz, 21-03-2020, https://qz.com/1820215/coronavirus-is-hurting-xenophobic-propaganda-in-italy/ (16-11-2020).

[17] Shruti Shrivastava, Millions escaped caste discrimination but COVID 19 brought it all back, in Bloomberg, 21-09-2020, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/millions-escaped-caste-discrimination-but-covid-19-brought-it-all-back/article32410521.ece (14-11-2020)

[18] Webdesk, Free vaccine only for Bihar opposition netizens question BJPs poll promise, in The Week,  22-10-2020, https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/10/22/free-vaccine-only-for-bihar-opposition-netizens-question-bjps-poll-promise.html (14-11-2020)

[19] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Penguin Books, 1967.

[20] Johnathan Stray, Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out, 11-06-2012, https://www.niemanlab.org/2012/07/are-we-stuck-in-filter-bubbles-here-are-five-potential-paths-out/ (14-11-2020)

[21] Cf. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), cited above.

[22] See Facebook’s suggestions on Tips to spot false news, Facebook-Help Centre, https://www.facebook.com/help/188118808357379 (12-11-2020)

[23]

[24] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Penguin Books, 1967, 63. See his explanation on video:  https://youtu.be/HeDnPP6ntic?t=169 (23-11-2020)

[25] Cf. Franz-Josef Eilers, svd, Church and Social Communication 40 years of Inter Mirifica and beyond, in Ad Veritatem. UST Graduate School, Manila, Philippines, Vol. 5/1 (2005) 1-9. See also: http://www.fabc.org/offices/osc/docs/pdf/Inter%20Mirifica%2040%20Years%20and%20Beyond.pdf (23-11-2020).

[26] The previous battle we are referring to is the one against imperialism. On April 5, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi solicited the support of his American friends in the struggle for India’s independence (and, by consequence, global imperialism) as follows: ”I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might.” The battle continues in our disinformation age.


© Dr Peter Gonsalves