Stopping the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is the best 2021 New Year’s resolution

Anxiety and other negative emotions can cause us to spread misinformation. (Shutterstock)

This article was originally published in The Conversation Canada on January 6, 2021.

As we begin a new year and head back (at least virtually) to work and school, we might be thinking about personal things we would like to improve. Some people resolve to exercise more, stick to a budget or cut out sugar from their diet. Others resolve to write that book, use social media less or volunteer in their communities. These are all great ideas, and I’d like to add another one.

Though we all made our New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 1, I respectfully suggest a January resolution that would, if we each committed to it, produce a large positive impact on society. This year, I resolve — and would like to encourage others to resolve — to stop the spread of misinformation at the individual level.

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Stopping the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is the best 2021 New Year’s resolution

We Are What We Attend To

What are you paying attention to? What do you scroll past on social media, or tune out when someone else is speaking?

A new study published in the journal Vaccine looks at the way different groups responded when confronted with vaccination arguments. In this work, authors Helge Giese, Hansjörg Neth,  Mehdi Moussaïd, Cornelia Betsch, and Wolfgang Gaissmaier from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the University of Erfurt (all in Germany) refute a common assumption held by those who study the communication of sensitive or political topics. The widely-held understanding is that exposure to a message negating a person’s existing point of view, will create a rebound effect that will move their opinion even farther away from the message than where it started. This study contradicts the rebound effect hypothesis, suggesting instead that selective attention means that exposure to a contradictory message has little impact on the person hearing it.

Selective attention can mean ignoring the message entirely, or surrounding oneself with others who do not believe the message. Selective attention can also mean tuning out contradictory messages and only tuning into to messages that confirm existing points of view. We are what we pay attention to.

This message is not new per se, and has existed in some ancient schools of thought, such as buddhism, which suggest that mindfulness has power to shape reality. In this line of thinking, we are both what we pay attention to, and are disempowered when we fail to pay attention. Enlightenment is somewhere close to full attention.

In the case of misinformation spread and polarization, I think we all need to ask ourselves what we’re paying attention to, and what we dismiss because it doesn’t fit our conceptions of the world. We need to pay special attention to what we dismiss. In this case, a little dose of mindfulness directed at our own response to contradictory information will help reduce each one of our tendencies towards polarization and group-think.

What are you attending to? What do you dismiss?

We Are What We Attend To

A Media Ecology of Online Misinformation: What can Postman teach us?

We are living in what some call an era of unprecedented global information flows. Participatory online communication technologies such as social media have allowed anyone with access to the internet to upload information for anyone else can see. Though not everyone participates as an active prosumer of information, enough people do that we are overwhelmed with information. 300 videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute, five new Facebook profiles are created every second, and every second about 6,000 tweets are posted to Twitter. The numbers are mind boggling.

Street art depicting a boy in a striped shirt sitting on a partially open laptop computer
“Information overload! #streetart #berlin” by Acid Midget is licensed under CC by 2.0

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A Media Ecology of Online Misinformation: What can Postman teach us?

Twitter politics, polarization and a lack of trust in media: The case of #cdnmedia

One of the hallmarks of the last year of US politics has been a steady stream of messages from the president about “fake news” or the “lying media”. Arguably, this has been a mainstay of Trump’s political strategy since he announced his run for the presidency, and it remains a tactic that he employs, and his followers seem to take at face value. So it’s not surprising to learn that in the US, trust in traditional media is at an all time low. In fact, recent research from the American Press Institute and Associated Press shows that 41% of Americans report having hardly any confidence in the traditional press.

Hashtag symbols painted on concrete
Hashtag by Susanne Nilsson. Available from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/VeKQb7

What was surprising for me though, as a Canadian researcher, was learning that this is more than just an American issue. In Canada, Statistics Canada reports that only 40% of Canadians report feeling confidence in the national media. With so much information available from so many different sources, it seems as though we just don’t know who or what we should trust anymore. This is true in 2017 and, unfortunately, my research also shows evidence of this trend as early as our Federal election in 2015. We collected thousands of tweets in the month leading up to the 2015 federal election, and we analyzed a sample of them using corpus analysis software along with human content analysis.

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Twitter politics, polarization and a lack of trust in media: The case of #cdnmedia

Tribes

Quick, what do Donald Trump, Crossfit, and FanExpo have in common?

A man lifting a very heavy barbell loaded with weight
345, Grinnin’ by Travis Isaacs, available from Flikr:https://flic.kr/p/batZUR

No, it’s not a rugged devotion to protein, cool outfits, weird hair or comic book villains – although any of these would have been a good guess.

Actually, it’s that all of these have benefited, in a digital age, from the rise of tribes.

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Tribes

From Print to Digital – Information Overload and Folk Wisdom

Lee Rainie’s Keynote in Image Form from #SMSociety 2017

Last week, I had the great pleasure of presenting my work at the International Conference on Social Media and Society (#SMSociety2017), hosted by the esteemed team at the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University. While in attendance, I listened to a fantastic keynote by Lee Rainie, the director of Internet and Policy Research at the Pew Research Center. His keynote, titled “The Reckoning for Social Media” focused on the research work conducted by the Pew Internet and Technology research center, about how social media have changed the relationship of people to each other and to public institutions. Some of his findings were disheartening such as, for example, recent research that shows that people polled in the US are experiencing declining trust in academic institutions, or that people are becoming more polarized in their political views. Other findings were more hopeful, such as the fact that there is substantial reciprocity across social media platforms.

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From Print to Digital – Information Overload and Folk Wisdom