Global menu

Our global pages

Close

Fake news and the lawless web: fighting against an infodemic

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus - Business resilience

02-11-2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, our exposure to a global ‘infodemic’ has continued to grow in its own right. The development of new technologies and the ubiquity of social media has seen the spread and consumption of information completely evolve – we can now communicate our thoughts, opinions and agendas on a macro scale in the click of a button. But what happens when there are falsehoods to those thoughts, opinions and agendas? Worse still, what happens when those falsehoods are intentionally spread? Just like a virus, disinformation (or ‘fake news’) is born, spread, becomes viral and mutates – all of which leaving potentially devastating consequences for everyone, not just those who are directly exposed to it.

So what lockdown measures are in place against this infodemic, and will we ever find an effective vaccine? Last year, we identified in our article the lack of regulatory measures in place, both on a domestic and international level, in a call to control the spread of disinformation online. Roughly one year on, the threat of disinformation online is even greater (not least due to the emotive events we have experienced in 2020), and the introduction of new laws by the UK Government to counter it remains distant.

In this article, we continue with our analysis of disinformation online in light of two highly prominent issues today: COVID-19 and politics, and in the absence of current regulation, we identify some of the best ways to help flatten the infodemic curve.

A shift from traditional news sources

Today, roughly half of the world’s population use social media (3.8 billion people)[1]. The use of traditional media sources for news (such as newspapers and television) is becoming less popular and the swing towards new sources of information, such as social media and messaging services, is accelerating considerably.

When you consider how often we use social media and messaging apps (just over two hours a day for internet users worldwide[2]) to share our photos, comments and stories, it makes sense – why not also have our news in the same feed? The issue is three-fold.

One of the most attractive features of social media is that it is personal to you – from your connections to the adverts you receive. Ultimately, we want to see what appeals to us. But personalised newsfeeds, created by algorithms based on a user’s activity, social connections and location, can become an issue when news is involved. There is potential to create an ‘echo-chamber’ reality for users which appeals to your own opinions, can block out the other side of the story or debate, and essentially, promote highly partisan news, appeal to emotion over truth and reduce the common ground.

Secondly, we are increasingly consuming our news online much like the way we consume fast food. It can be quick, easy, cheap and appealing, but often it lacks quality and substance. A recent study found that online users are more likely to share a story than actually read it, with roughly 6 out of 10 links shared on social media never actually being clicked on[3].

And finally, there is fake news, or ‘disinformation’ – false or misleading information that is spread deliberately to deceive. Fake news in our society is nothing new, but as a consequence of new technologies and the prevalence of online activity, it has become one of the biggest problems that we face in the digital age, both for users and Big Tech companies. As we identify further below, fake news can have a devastating influence on even the most important issues that we face today.

The UK Government continues to deliberate new legislation to tackle a wide range of harmful content online, such as disinformation (please see our review of the Government’s White Paper here). This new legislation, however, may not be in force until 2023 or 2024[4]. Further still, whilst this legislation will be very welcomed on a broader scale, it is likely that it will not be sufficiently comprehensive nor sophisticated enough to adequately address the unique threat of disinformation.

COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed fragilities in societies and economies on a global scale, and the spread of fake news has compounded the problem. The pandemic has become a prime target of fake news from the outset – there is so much that we still do not know, developments are announced all the time, often sporadically, and it is a deeply heart-rending issue.

As the possibility of a vaccine edges closer, misleading information and conspiracy theories surrounding it increasingly circulate on social media, from false claims that a vaccine is a tool for mass genocide to baseless conspiracy theories about micro-chipping the world population[5]. The conspiracy theory connecting COVID-19 to the roll-out of the 5G network has become the most common piece of fake news relating to the virus in the UK[6] - an issue every reader of this article will have no doubt heard about, in at least one shape or form.

As a consequence, the UK Government has set up a response unit lead by the DCMS to counter the spread of false information relating to the virus and relaunched its ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ campaign to urge people to think carefully about what is read and shared online[7].

Big Tech companies have also recognised the threat. YouTube has removed at least 200,000 dangerous or misleading videos about the virus since February, whilst Facebook placed warning labels on at least 90 million pieces of misinformation in March and April 2020 alone and has directed more than 3.5 million visits to official COVID-19 advice on the NHS and UK government websites[8].

Politics

The global threat of fake news online is of equal importance in the political arena. At the core of a political party’s success (or failure) in an election is its campaign – how it is managed, how it is delivered and how it is received. We are all familiar with the traditional methods of political campaigning, from flyers and newsletters to televised debates. But today, political campaigns (both official and unofficial) are primarily fought on a different, more unrelenting battleground – online.

Whilst political campaigning online is becoming an increasingly popular and effective tool for official political parties, the same can be said for unofficial, often more sinister, campaigns. The interference of artificial intelligence is at the forefront of this issue. The use of bots and deepfakes from both domestic and foreign origins, for example, have each operated to spread false or manipulated content to damage reputations, incite hate and fracture political campaigns.

On Tuesday 3 November 2020, the US faces one of the most crucial elections in recent history. The UK and US have each proven in recent years to be fertile political grounds for fake news. During the 2016 EU referendum, according to data released by Facebook, the official Vote Leave campaign spent more than £2.7 million on targeting adverts at specific groups of people on its platform[9]. In the final six weeks before the 2019 general election, political party spend on online advertisements increased by an estimated 50% in comparison to the 2017 general election. In the US, during the 2016 election, headlines such as “Hilary sold weapons to ISIS” and “Pope backs Trump” received thousands of shares on Facebook, whilst fake news websites received approximately 159 million visits during the final month of the election[10].

Four years later, the run-up to the 2020 US election has proven no different, from misleading images about voter fraud to edited videos about COVID-19 opinions. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been the subject of fake news. In response, Big Tech companies have gone to great lengths in recognition of the gravity of the threat. Facebook, Twitter and Google were among the major players to announce in August 2020 that they were working alongside US government agencies to protect the integrity of the election. Ahead of the unprecedented number of postal votes due to COVID-19, Twitter will be labelling or removing tweets pre-emptively declaring victory before the result has been certified, whilst Facebook and Google will similarly block election-related adverts after the polls have closed[11].

Flattening the infodemic curve

The UK currently awaits legislation to be implemented to regulate harmful content online. It is also clear that Big Tech companies, on a global scale, have been implementing measures to fight coordinated and extensive disinformation campaigns. But though these efforts are hugely welcomed, a challenge that we all face is the grass-roots, user-created information that has become the bread and butter for how this infodemic is spread[12]. Social media, by its very nature, is social. We want to share our ideas, air our concerns and sometimes, vent our frustrations. And so whilst we await a vaccine, there are measures that we can all take that may help to flatten the infodemic curve by asking ourselves five key questions when reading or sharing information online[13]:

1. What is the source?

2. Is there more behind the headline?

3. What is the date?

4. Is there supporting evidence?

5. Are your own biases having an influence?

Whilst it may be difficult, if not impossible, to fully quantify the true influence of fake news in a lawless web, what cannot be denied is that it is consistently proving to be a melting pot for social, economic and political chaos. Technology is both fast-moving and volatile, and though we may reap the rewards of instant communication and information online, we also collectively face the very real and monumental challenge to fight this infodemic together, and ultimately, find a vaccine.


1. “Why 2020 Is A Critical Global Tipping Point For Social Media”, Forbes, 18 February 2020, available here.

2. “Daily social media usage worldwide 2012-2019”, Statista, 26 February 2020, available here.

3. “59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked, study finds”, Independent, 16 June 2016, available here.

4. “Online Harms bill: Warning over 'unacceptable' delay”, BBC, 29 June 2020, available here.

5. “Coronavirus: YouTube bans misleading Covid-19 vaccine videos”, BBC, 14 October, available here.

6. “Coronavirus: 5G conspiracy theory now most common fake news story surrounding pandemic, Ofcom finds”, Independent, 21 April 2020, available here.

7. “Government cracks down on spread of false coronavirus information online”, Gov.UK, 30 March 2020, available here.

8. “Coronavirus: Harmful lies spread easily due to lack of UK law”, BBC, 20 July 2020, available here.

9. “Vote Leave's targeted Brexit ads released by Facebook”, BBC, 26 July 2018, available here.

10. “Fake news: What exactly is it – and how can you spot it?”, The Telegraph, 20 November 2019, available here.

11. “US election marks a reckoning for social media – but the crackdowns are a sign of fear, not altruism”, i.news, 24 October 2020, available here.

12. “Social media giants are fighting coronavirus fake news. It’s still spreading like wildfire”, Politico, 12 March 2020, available here.

13. “Let’s flatten the infodemic curve”, WHO, available here.