Ad industry can help to spread 'truth virus' in fight against fake news

Article written for Campaign - published 8 April 2020

There is no corner of the world that has been left untouched by the coronavirus. It is taking lives and may yet be the cause of the greatest economic crash since the great depression of the 1930s.

Alongside this, we have seen another virulent and damaging virus rip around the world; a phenomenon referred to by the World Health Organization as an "infodemic" of disinformation spreading false claims about the origins of Covid-19 and how to protect yourself from it. 

The debate about disinformation in the past few years has been more focused on election interference, but we can now see clearly its implications for public health. 

That has been evident in some of the anti-vaccine campaigns that have previously spread through social media and we’re now seeing it in the messaging around the coronavirus. 

Disinformation can be deadly and people have died as a consequence of taking treatments that would supposedly cure them of Covid-19. 

In response to social media posts that claimed the virus was caused by 5G mobile signals, we have seen attacks in the UK against phone masts and abuse directed at telecoms workers maintaining the existing broadband network.

Protecting health by fighting disinformation

The coronavirus is the first great public-health emergency in the age of social media disinformation, yet this is a time when people need reliable news more than ever. 

Governments are doing all they can to communicate important public-health information and social media companies have said they will remove disinformation that poses an immediate threat to life, but I believe we need to do more – and that starts with responding to the fake news people are actually seeing.

Often, the agents of disinformation just rely on creating doubt and confusion, rather than actually having to establish an alternative set of facts. 

In the hidden worlds of closed Facebook groups and encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp, disinformation can spread and it’s only the people who are receiving it who can call it out. 

Ultimately, I believe we should create an offence in law for people to knowingly, maliciously and at scale spread disinformation about the coronavirus. 

Equally, there should be a requirement for social media companies to remove it when they have been notified of it.

Spreading the 'truth virus'

However, we need to act now not just against disinformation, but to support the spread of the "truth virus", to ensure people are not just armed with a healthy scepticism to protect themselves from fake news, but also act so that the facts spread more effectively than the lies. 

In response to this challenge, on 30 March I launched Infotagion, working in partnership with the team from Iconic Labs – Liam Harrington, John Quinlan and Samuel Regan-Asante. 

They were instrumental in the creation and development of Unilad and LadBible, growing it into one of the world’s largest media platforms. 

Together, we have created a unique collaboration of politicians, academics and campaigners, with a range of experience covering Europe, North America and Singapore, all focused on fighting back against disinformation on the coronavirus.

Fact-checking 

The proposition behind Infotagion is a simple one. If you see something that doesn’t look right, check it out with us.

You can submit it to us through our website either with a screenshot or by sending us a link. 

We will fact-check it against trusted sources of information, including from the WHO, the NHS and other public-health services. 

Infotagion is also building up an open archive of fact-checked responses to the messages people are seeing on social media channels. 

Through this, I also hope we will see more effective action from the big tech companies to remove more of this content.

My appeal to Campaign readers 

However, defeating disinformation is about advocacy, not just accuracy. We need to amplify the truth virus back through social media so that more people are aware of the information that has been proven to be false, as well as the trusted sources of news that they can rely on. 

I believe we all have a part to play in this effort and my appeal to the creative and distinguished readers of Campaign is that your impact here could be decisive. 

There can be no better carriers of the truth virus than the masters of engagement and positive communication. 

We at Infotagion, just like every other organisation that is working to try to call out disinformation, need your help to get the message across. 

The job is too big for any one body, no matter how well-resourced. We need to create a popular movement to lead the fightback.

Find out more at https://infotagion.com

Copyright 2019 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Russell Tillson for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP

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