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On the frontline of the misinformation pandemic

There has perhaps never been a situation given more towards rumour and conspiracy theory than Covid-19. 

The numbers tell the story – with Facebook removing 12 million pieces of Covid misinformation by November 2020, and YouTube over half a million by January 2021. 

For fact-checking organisations like Full Fact, the coronavirus has given birth to another kind of pandemic of the online misinformation kind. 

Their team of fact checkers works with government and organisations to provide impartial and correct information, from expert health advice to vaccinations – when lives are sometimes literally at stake. 

“The pandemic has very clearly shown the volume of misinformation that can be out there,” Full Fact policy manager Nicola Aitken tells the latest episode of Tech Shock.

“Before the virus had really taken hold, it was a lot of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus and ideas that Chinese scientists had deliberately created and unleashed the coronavirus. 

“It became much more about false cures and treatments – or people asking questions about what was and wasn't allowed. 

“We've seen a lot of false claims which are framing [vaccines] as unsafe or untested. This viewpoint is often of people trying to make sense of the really confusing situation that we're in.”

“There may already be a certain belief that something is going wrong” 

Full Fact has spent much of 2021 working with the government on providing accurate and accessible vaccination information. This, they emphasise, must come in “in simple, plain language that ordinary people can understand”. 

It has also required their making a distinction between reasonable questions about safety, partly accurate information and deliberate misinformation and hate content. And then, of course, come the conspiracy theories. 

“It certainly is disappointing to see a lot of claims that spread hate or try to attack vulnerable or marginalized communities,” says Aitken.

“Conspiracy theories [however] often tend to be a kind of anti-establishment narrative. They might be more easily believed by people who are already frustrated, disappointed or angry with the way that the world is being run [or] their social experiences. 

“This past year we've seen a lot of people who have criticised the way the government has handled the pandemic. 

“There may already be a certain belief that something is going wrong. When a conspiracy theory plays into that belief, it is really difficult.” 

“We don't know the scale of the problem yet”

Full Fact can be described as a ‘downstream’ organisation, attempting to correct content that is emerging on social media and news platforms. These, Aitken believes, are not yet sharing information in the way they could. While she says in an ideal world sites like hers “wouldn’t exist”, she also believes that tools to prevent misinformation at source are still “quite basic”. 

For now, the task relies on raising awareness and greater collaboration between the ‘upstream’ organisations and tech firms to provide information and transparency.

“I think having really good partnerships with different organisations, so that we can fact check, is helpful and necessary,” she says. 

“We found it really difficult to get good information from the NHS, from Public Health England and from other scientists – and that really hindered our ability.

“But I would love to see the internet companies be a bit more collaborative and transparent as well – with the problems that they are seeing and the actions that they're taking to tackle it. 

“We just don't know the scale of the problem yet because they're not telling us.”

To hear the full discussion, listen to 
the new episode of Tech Shock: “True or False?”

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