Exploring the COVID-19 and misinformation analogy

For someone who thinks about misinformation daily, the similarities between the spread of misinformation and the spread of the Coronavirus have been hard to ignore. In some ways that is unsurprising since some of the defensive measures tech platforms have built to counter misinformation were inspired by the study of pandemics. Yet the current crisis is perhaps a good time to reevaluate the analogy and see what further learnings can be drawn from it.

In both cases one of the things that is at stake beyond immediate harm is our trust in one another and in the institutions that govern us.

Vulnerable people like older citizens are particularly at risk. While in the case of the virus we tend to think of them as victims, in the case of misinfo society tends to assume they have full agency. That is probably a difference worth exploring further.

Peoples’ instinct when it comes to the virus is to avoid contact. Yet in the case of misinformation, sharing does not necessarily go down even as awareness of misinformation rises. That may be because of a misunderstanding of what is at stake. Another theory is more biological: communication is one of the strongest human needs. It is relatively doable for humans to avoid physical contact but the cost of stopping all communications with one another is simply too high.

For each phase (and not just the preventive one), influencing public perception to encourage safe behavior is key:

Other emerging trends as a result of the virus:

  • Society’s attempt to appeal to individuals’ responsibility to protecting others and not just themselves (e.g. StayTheFuckHome)
  • Rise of private messaging and private group chats to discuss the latest and stay safe
  • Rise of disinformation about the pandemic (for misinfo: misinformation about misinformation) e.g. discrediting official sources or minimizing the risks

Responsibilities in both cases span all segments of society

What are some best practices for governments and platforms to follow in communicating about their efforts?

  • Accepting responsibility (not ownership) without putting the blame on a broader context or externality
  • Educating about what’s at stake
  • Making decisions transparently, to inspire trust
  • Demonstrating how decision making was informed by consultation and expertise
  • Asking people to behave responsibly, empowering them to become agents
  • Appealing to the strength and resilience of the community

This is as far as I could go in the analogy. I’m sure there are more learnings in both directions that could inform both governments’ and tech platforms’ strategies.

Exploring the intersection of technology and democracy.

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