An increase of disinformation during and after the Donald Trump administration has paved the way for mass misinformation and disinformation across a multitude of social media platforms, so Joan Donovan of Harvard University explained why journalists should be on their toes.
“There’s a deep distrust of institutional politics and anti-science sentiment and those things matter,” Donovan told a group of attendees at SPJ’s annual conference.
Donovan, Research Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Rod Hicks, SPJ Director of Ethics and Diversity, led the conversation.
Donovan explained the need to stop false narratives from circulating on the internet is crucial, especially surrounding vaccine hesitancy and issues of child abuse. She also called out disinformation organizations like QAnon. Donovan briefly discussed the pizzagate conspiracy theory, QAnon and vaccine hesitancy with the uptake in research on Ivermectin, a drug repeatedly denounced by WHO and CDC officials.
“Depending upon who people are paying attention to in the world, that is going to determine the proportionality of mis- and disinformation in the world,” Donovan said.
Donovan said it’s important to note proportionality because someone could be spreading misinformation but not have a significant following for journalists to use their resources to debunk the topic. On the other hand, she said it does matter and it is necessary to debunk misinformation coming from people with larger platforms and larger influence over large populations of people.
“So people who have an enormous platform and a big megaphone and are the President of the United States of America … which is arguably the most influential person on the planet, then it does matter,” Donovan said.
Donovan and Hicks concluded their conversation about misinformation with an emphasis on journalistic resources. They stressed the dire need to disrupt the chain of disinformation on the internet so journalists aren’t wasting their resources and draining their energy on things that aren’t real.
“What’s hard about it is, the disinformers win if they can get journalists to engage, even if the journalists debunk it,” Donovan said. “Because it’s getting attention.”
Donovan said journalists should be alert to fact-checking even the most common-looking photos because there are trolls who consistently put information on the internet to dupe journalists. She said the problem isn’t necessarily that journalists are being tricked by the photo(s) or information, but that journalists are falling into a sort-of trap in which they have to write about or speak about a topic that is clearly fake but since it’s getting so much traction on social media, the journalist has to debunk the story.
“Our democracy is at threat and we can’t keep (going) in this direction,” Hicks said. “I just wonder, if nothing changes and the disinformation that’s online explodes even more and these platforms are still being used and people are exploiting them … then we can’t continue like this, so something needs to happen to reel (misinformation and disinformation) back in.”