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World Social Media Day: UN says ‘take care before you share’ in bid to tackle misinformation

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The United Nations urged social media users to “pause — take care before you share” on Tuesday to mark World Social Media Day and combat misinformation.

“We are in a moment of global reckoning, from the pandemic sweeping across the globe to worldwide protests for racial justice to the climate emergency,” the UN said on its website.

“Misinformation, hate speech and fake news is fuelling and distorting all of the challenges. It acts as a virus. It exploits our weakness. Our biases. Our prejudices. Our emotions,” it added.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation is the spreading of false information regardless of intent to mislead. Disinformation is the same except there is a desire to deceive.

So-called fake news has far-reaching consequences from causing public harm to putting people’s health, security and their environment at risk, according to the European Commission.

“Disinformation erodes trust in institutions and in digital and traditional media and harms our democracies by hampering the ability of citizens to make informed decisions,” it said.

“It can polarise debates, create or deepen tensions in society and undermine electoral systems, and have a wider impact on European security.”

How it spreads

False news spread much more rapidly on social media than real news does.

According to a 2018 study by three scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fake news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.

“It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people. When it comes to Twitter’s “cascades,” or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 about 20 times faster than facts,” they noted.

One of the reasons for that lies in platforms’ algorithms, which decides what users see and what they don’t see.

According to a report by the European Parliament released in 2018, “on Facebook, users usually see less than 10 per cent or everything that they are subscribed to by being friends or following people and organisations”.

Posts’ visibility is instead determined by users’ past activity (past interactions and likes); other users’ activity which determines how popular a post is among the users’ friends; and Facebook’s own evaluation.

How to spot fake news and stop its spread

As misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic grew, the EU’s agency for law enforcement cooperation — Europol — released a guide on breaking the fake news chain.

Among the steps it outlines are:

  • Be mindful, especially of clickbait headlines;
  • Check the website’s trustworthiness through its about page, mission and contact info;
  • Check whether other sources are reporting the same information and how many sources are actually mentioned in the story;
  • Run the picture through an online search to determine if it’s used out of context;
  • Go to reputable websites: in the case of COVID, they recommended turning to the World Health Organization and national health agencies.

If after conducting these steps, you’ve determined that it is fake news, Europol recommends you do not engage with it as “doing so would just make the post more popular” and to report it to the platform.

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