Fake news is always harmful. But it becomes even deadlier in these uncertain times amid the COVID-19 pandemic. People are now more emotional and spending a lot of time online. Because of this, social media platforms are becoming an even bigger breeding ground for fake news.
One of the biggest factors in the proliferation of fake news is the existence of paid trolls. Troll armies spread fake news to support their clients or discredit the enemies of these benefactors. They even harass ordinary citizens who criticize the politicians they work for.
Stop tolerating trolls
“I really wish the social media platforms that have given these trolls a platform would step up,” said Tony La Viña, a constitutional expert and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.
La Viña was one of the panelists at the “Trusted Content, Fake News, and the Law in the time of COVID-19” webcast that Thomson Reuters Manila and One Young World (OYW) organized.
“The only way to make them stop is if their mode of dissemination is stopped,” La Viña pointed out, when asked how to combat trolls. He said that of course this is easier said than done. For one, trolls whose social media accounts are taken down could always create new ones. More importantly, the interests which motivate the hiring of trolls are “as old as time”, predating social networks.
This is why social media platforms should be the one to take the lead since they control their own sites. Individuals can only do so much in reporting the actions of these trolls, though he noted that users should also do their share.
“All I do is block them and they’re out of my life. I block them on all my platforms,” he said.
COVID-19 and fake news
One of the challenges in fighting fake news about COVID-19 is that the virus has been accompanied by an infodemic. As the World Health Organization has warned, it is this “massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Fake news about COVID-19 can be a matter of life and death. As such, social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube have become more active in taking down accounts that spread misinformation.
“I guess the question for me is what happens after this pandemic is over? And whether these companies can step up and become arbiters of truth,” said Antonio Zappulla, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation and OYW Counsellor.
Zappulla said social networks have always been reluctant to become arbiters of truth. They have always said they are platforms and not media companies. COVID-19, however, has put more pressure on social networks to make sure they are not a platform for fake news.
To help journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomson Reuters Foundation has launched its COVID-19 Crisis Reporting Hub. This platform will equip journalists with the skills and resources they need to report on the pandemic and its impact. TrustLaw, Thomson Reuters’ pro bono connection service, has also unveiled a COVID-19 Resource Hub.
Meanwhile, the newly created Reuters fact-checking unit has joined Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program. Karen Lema, Deputy Bureau Chief of Reuters Philippines Bureau, shared this during the webcast.
Lema said COVID-19 has made it even more necessary for journalists to fact check. Nowadays, people are even more likely to believe and share fake news because emotions are running high.
She said covering the pandemic has presented both challenges and opportunities in gathering news despite the enhanced community quarantine.
“I think we can agree that this coronavirus story is unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “It’s been very challenging. We’ve mostly been working from home. I guess not just Reuters but all news organizations, it’s surprised us that we can continue doing our jobs.”
Marla Garin-Alvarez, Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Global Diversity & Inclusion, of Thomson Reuters, moderated the webcast. She said the goal was to facilitate a conversation on the thorny issue of fake news.
“Our particular context revolves around the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how fact and fake directly impact matters of life and death. Ultimately, our goal is to champion accurate and reliable news and information, enhance the quality of discourse online, and equip people with tools to protect themselves against misinformation,” Garin-Alvarez told Digital Life Asia.
“We wanted to share our thought leadership and best practices as the world’s leading news and information company. This was meant to be Philippine-focused with a global perspective, but we’ve received a lot of requests from other countries to do another session that is more global in scope. We are currently looking into this possibility,” she said.
Will social media platforms be able to step up? In the new normal that COVID-19 is creating, they will have to.