How Serious is Misinformation Online Globally?

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$78 Billion Every Year!

Online social media has brought together billions of people from around the world. The impact of diverse platforms such as Facebook, WeChat, Reddit, LinkedIn, Signal, WhatsApp, Gab, Instagram, Telegraph etc. has been transformational.  The number of active users of the six most popular online social networks combined is estimated at about 10 billion [1]. The World Wide Web (the Web) is a place where online written non-graphical content can be created, consumed and diffused without any real intermediary. This empowering aspect of the Web is generally a force for good: people, on the whole, are better informed and participation in online discussion is more inclusive (barriers to participation are reduced).

As online activity has grown, however, research has revealed a darker side to online social media and its ability to influence behaviour in the real world. The general absence of intermediaries online allows a free-for-all direct path from producers of questionable content to consumers. Two disturbing trends have been highlighted: ‘information disorder’ and ‘echo chambers’. Misinformation (false or misleading information not necessarily intended to deceive), disinformation (false and misleading information with intention to deceive) and malinformation (authentic information with intent to cause harm) are common types of information disorders [2]. Disinformation is particularly insidious as it can be transformed by social media into misinformation [3]. This occurs, for example, when deliberate nefarious propaganda is released (disinformation) but subsequently shared through social median innocently (misinformation).

The World Economic Forum highlighted information disorder as a threat to society [4]. There are now online spaces (echo chambers) where people are only exposed to content created or shared by like-minded users of the platform. Similar to echo chambers are filter bubbles, spaces artificially created by algorithms using the user’s online history to further suggest or recommend other content. Echo chambers and filter bubbles reduce the quality of discourse online and can directly and indirectly lead to the creation and diffusion of biased and unsubstantiated content.

Researchers have studied the spread of conspiracy theories within echo chambers and filter bubbles [5]. One study discovered on the Twitter platform, untruth was retweeted quicker and by more people than truthful content (70 percent more retweets) [6]. Some analysts see online misinformation as a national security challenge: equipped with cybersecurity tools, they track misinformation the way they would track malware, to prevent “the hacking of people’s beliefs” [7]. Without a collective respect for facts and evidence there is no basis for a liberal democratic society [8].  A foundation of facts secures any civilization. False information online usually serves one of two (or both) purposes: for clickbait (to draw attention and attract Web traffic for financial gain) or to influence/mould beliefs or major events [9].

A report by the University of Baltimore and CHEQ estimated that misinformation online (fake news) costs the global economy more than $70 billion annually [10]. Fake news has a negative on the global stock markets to the tune approximately $40 billion annually [10].

 

 

[1] Statista. Most popular social networks worldwide as of July 2020, ranked by number of active users, https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

[2] Turcio L and Obrenovic M. Misinformation, disinformation, malinformation: causes, trends, and their influence on democracy, https://hk.boell.org/sites/default/files/importedFiles/2020/11/04/200825_E-Paper3_ENG.pdf

[3] O’Connor C and Weatherall J. How misinformation spreads – and why we trust it, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-misinformation-spreads-and-why-we-trust-it/

[4] World Economic Forum. Scientists can lead the fight against fake news, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/scientists-can-lead-the-fight-against-fake-news/

[5] Del Vicario M, Bessi A, Zollo F, et al. The spread of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2016; 113: 554-559.

[6] MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Research Brief. The spread of true and false news online,http://ide.mit.edu/sites/default/files/publications/2017%20IDE%20Research%20Brief%20False%20News.pdf

[7] Kehrt, S. One data scientist’s quest to quash misinformation. Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/data-scientist-cybesecurity-tools-quash-misinformation/

[8] Freedland J. Disinformed to death. The New York Review of Books, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/08/20/fake-news-disinformed-to-death/

[9] Baly R, Karadzhov G, Alexandrov D, et al. Predicting factuality of reporting and bias of news media sources, https://arxiv.org/abs/1810.01765

[10] University of Baltimore/CHEQ. The economic cost of bad actors on the internet, https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.mediapost.com/uploads/EconomicCostOfFakeNews.pdf

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