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

The Master’s Tools: Putting Social Media in its Place

This week Zuckerberg put his foot in his mouth yet again when he said that Facebook’s new approach to free expression was going to ‘piss off a lot of people’ thereby standing up for trolls and bullies rather than creating a safe place for free expression.

By now, we’re all familiar with the problems of an open communication network which allows global reach. It’s easy to game our reptile brains to spread misinformation, hate speech and propaganda. It allows countries to interfere in the democratic communication processes in other countries. At best it serves as a kind of opiate for the masses, providing distractions that take people out of their communities. It’s a tool for capitalistic expansion and the control of knowledge and information flows. And to top it all off, the ads it serves are terrible.

“nuit blanche” by is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


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The Master’s Tools: Putting Social Media in its Place

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

Snapchat: Putting the media back in social media

Today, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel announced in a CNBC interview that Snapchat has a plan to fact check political ads in an effort to curb misinformation problems currently plaguing many social media sites. Snap will not run ads that its fact checkers have determined are fake, and they’ve banned “political advertising that intends to mislead, deceive, or violate the company’s terms of service”. For those who have been following along, this represents a sharp departure from Facebook’s recently stated policy of allowing all political advertising to run without the hassle of fact checking, as a means of promoting what they say is free speech on the platform. And last week, Twitter announced a sort of middle ground political ad policy in which certain advertisers are banned and issue ads are strictly governed.



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Snapchat: Putting the media back in social media

Elxn 43 wrap up: Last night on Twitter

In Canada, we survived our 43rd election, with the incumbent liberal government securing a minority parliament after a roller coaster 40 day campaign. Many election watchers were glued to their television sets, streaming video, or news websites last night in order to experience the results as they slowly rolled in. But how did voting day play out on Twitter? I tracked the two most popular election related hashtags: #elxn43 and #cdnpoli on Tweet Archivist to find out.

#cdnpoli most mentioned users

The most mentioned users Oct 21, 2019 from #cdnpoli. Collected with Tweet Archivist


As can be seen in the wordcloud above, opposition leader Andrew Scheer was more often mentioned in conjunction with the hashtag #cdnpoli than incumbent Justin Trudeau, or the other party leaders, Jagmeet Singh or Elizabeth May. Parody website The Beaverton was mentioned more often than other news sites. Notably, the Bloc Quebecois was the seventh most popular user mentioned in association with the hashtag #cdnpoli. This may be a reflection of the growing popularity of the Bloc, which manifested in the Quebec centric party winning more seats than expected this election.

#cdnpoli trending hashtags

Most popular hashtags associated with the election hashtag #cdnpoli. Collected with Tweet Archivist


Of course, the election specific hashtag #elxn43 was most often associated with the #cdnpoli hashtag, as well as expected tags like #canadavotes, #vote, and #canadaelection. More surprising is the presence of #ableg – the hashtag for the Alberta provincial legislature, which was the 15th most popular hashtag. And Denmark, which seems to be driven by retweets of a specific tweet about renewable energy in Denmark, posted by a user affiliated with Greenpeace who was urging people to vote for clean energy.

#elxn43 most mentioned users

Most mentioned users affiliated with the hashtag #elxn43 on Oct 21, 2019. Data collected from Tweet Archivist

Looking at the #elxn43 hashtag, Jagmeet Singh, NDP leader was the most mentioned user. Followed by the other leaders, with opposition leader Andrew Scheer getting a few more mentions than incumbent Trudeau. The parody news site The Beaverton was still the most mentioned news outlet. Other frequently mentioned users include candidates for each party, and the names of some of the political parties. Included are also Jason Kenney, who is the leader of the provincial conservatives in Alberta, and the user @FairQuestions who is a Vancouver writer who has accused environmental groups of being against the oil and gas industry in a deceitful way.

#elxn43 trending hashtags

The top hashtags affiliated with elxn43 on October 21, 2019. Collected from Tweet Archivist

for #elxn43, #cdnpoli was the top most mentioned co-occurring hashtag. Outside of election specific hashtags like #canadavotes, #electionscanada, and #canadvotes2019, notable hashtags include #trudeaumustgo, which was the 6th most popular hashtag, and #trudeaulesstuesday, which was the 10th most popular hashtag. Also notable? #alberta was in the top 20.

Did Twitter Activity Suggest the “Blue Wave”?

While the incumbent liberal government maintained official governing status this election, albeit with a minority instead of majority government, some pundits suggest that a blue wave of conservative voting swept through the prairie provinces allowing the conservative government to pick up several seats more than they had going into the election. Given the alberta and conservative party focus on Twitter during election night, can we say that Twitter presaged a blue wave?

Well.. maybe?

about 42% of Canadians are on Twitter, but fewer than that are regularly active on the site. We don’t know if Canadian Twitter users are more likely to vote than non-Twitter users, but we do know that journalists and political candidates tend to be more active on Twitter than regular users. It could be that journalists and political candidates with insider information were amplifying sentiment in Alberta and the other prairie provinces which was an accurate reflection of feelings on the ground. Or it could be somewhat of a coincidence that conservative sentiment was so prevalent on these hashtags during election night.

If we were judging by number of mentions alone, it certainly seems like the conservatives would have been the winning party. Interestingly enough, conservatives did get a slightly higher proportion of the popular vote than the incumbent liberals did, though it’s difficult to say how much of this is accurately reflected on Twitter, and whether the connection is due to more than chance alone.

What we can say is this: Twitter and other social media accounts have been accused of a left wing bias. If the Twitter activity on election night was any indication, this claim is unfounded. In fact, one could say that those opposed to what they see as left leaning policy are getting more traction on the platform if we look at trending mentions and hashtags co-occurring with popular election hashtags. Like other claims of a “left wing media” the idea that social platforms penalize users with right or conservative messages seems unfounded.

Elxn 43 wrap up: Last night on Twitter

The real problem with fake news… is news.

Yesterday, I was asked to appear on a CBC lunchtime call in show to discuss the issue of fake news during election time. Apparently, Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co recently conducted a poll in which two out of five Canadians reported that they had seen “fake news” online. In this case, Research Co defined “fake news” as “stories about current affairs that were obviously false”.

Now we can take Research Co to task for their imprecise definition of fake news here. Many Donald Trump supporters, for example, think that mainstream and reputable news outlets report stories that are “obviously false” and unfortunately, truth seems to rest in the eye of the beholder these days. However, that’s a much longer discussion for another blog post.

What I’d like to do today, is assume that we are seeing false, exaggerated, or misleading news more often than we used to, and I’d like to look at one important driver of misinformation during this particular Canadian election, using the recent rumours about Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister as a sort of case study of the ways media manipulators try to bait established media outlets to spread rumour and innuendo.

“This Soup is So Fake” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC0 1.0

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The real problem with fake news… is news.

#Elxn43: Welcome to the jungle

Canadian political parties have indicated that they intend to use new digital methods to reach potential voters in the upcoming election, including the use of text messaging campaigns.

“Jungle Cupcakes” by DixieBelleCupcakeCafe is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Great idea, I mean what could go wrong? New. Innovative Digital Campaigning – woo!

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#Elxn43: Welcome to the jungle

It’s Not You, Or Me!

Pop quiz: What do climate change and social media privacy have in common?

“Stop Global Warming” by Piera Zuliani is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

If you said, “a distracting and inaccurate focus on individual actions” you’re correct! Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a congratulatory beer, glass of wine, coffee, or soda.

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It’s Not You, Or Me!

Hello Shadow

Note: This post is for Laura, by request – hi Laura!

Note 2: This post is far more philosophical than I normally go, but I thought, what the heck, why not have fun with it?

“shadow” by mandaloo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Your online Shadow.

Everyone has one. Even if you take care to not use platforms like Facebook, it’s highly likely that you have a shadow profile following you around the internet.

Platforms like Facebook and Google do it best. They collect all the data you and your friends or colleagues give them when you use their free services (But Google maps is SO CONVENIENT!) and they combine that with collected data about the other sites you visit (even after you log out) or where you’re logging in from, or whether you’re on a mobile device or a computer. They combine all of this data, and start to make predictions about you, which are either confirmed or adjusted depending on your online habits, and the habits of those you are connected to. This is precisely why so many people think their phones are secretly listening to them – and then delivering ads based on something they said. Your phone is not listening to you. It’s more troubling than that. Your shadow profile has revealed your secrets (she’s not very discrete!).

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Hello Shadow

Unintended Consequences

Researchers at MIT, who are at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology, have noticed that paradoxically when a little bit of assistive technology is added to a car, drivers become less safe. In other words, when people feel like technology is behind they wheel they are more likely to be more distracted drivers and thus many of the autonomous technologies that are intended to make people more safe actually do the opposite.

This is a classic unintended consequence of technology, like the ones described by Edward Tenner in his 1997 book Why Things Bite BackTo combat this issue, the smart folks at MIT decided to put a human facing camera in a vehicle, which would look for distracted driving and compensate accordingly, as seen in this YouTube video. Rather than asking, what are the social and psychological reasons that drive people to engage in distracted driving, so that these reasons might be minimized, instead the best solution was determined to be adding another layer of technological assistance to the issue. Technology to solve the problem created by technology.

A screen capture from the MIT Human-Centered Autonomous Vehicle demo video, available from



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Unintended Consequences