Over the weekend, rumors echoed across Massachusetts that the governor was preparing an order to “shelter in place.” A panicked public bought up supplies of toilet paper, cleaning products, pasta, and peanut butter at grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores around the state. As events like the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and Boston Marathon were canceled or postponed and bars and gathering places were shuttered, Governor Charlie Baker responded to the rumor: “Everybody needs to get their news from legitimate places, not from their friend’s friend’s friend’s friend.”
Where did this rumor come from? A blog by a known conspiracy theorist was making the rounds on social media, perhaps triggering residents’ memories of the Boston Marathon bombing as painful reminders of what is possible in a crisis.
In the middle of a massive and growing coronavirus shutdown, social media is more important than ever. With soft quarantines in place, Facebook, Twitter, and other services are taking on an entirely new valence as the foundation for our everyday lives—a crucial conduit between families, friends, and coworkers, as well as much-needed entertainment. As we become more isolated physically, social media and the web will also have to shoulder the world’s information needs as more and more people seek timely and local information.
And yet the World Health Organization worries that in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, they must also combat an infodemic, which it defines as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” In a press conference over the weekend, Governor Baker reminded listeners that TV and newspapers are the most reliable ways to obtain information, and he warned against relying on social media.
Without thoughtful strategies to prevent the spread of bad information, a lot could go wrong. Social-media platforms continue to be a dangerous socio-technical vulnerability in times of confusion and crisis. When information is scarce, opportunities abound for media manipulators to trade on chaos and fear.
We confront a paradox. The same technological infrastructure that perpetuates the infodemic is created by platform companies that profit off the unrelenting spread of information. These are also the same communication tools we must use to fight against it. As platforms adapt, all design decisions are also political ones.
Not only are US residents seeking information on Covid-19, they are also in the middle of an election cycle and preparing for the once-in-a-decade national census. This has led to some unusual decisions, such as Louisiana postponing its Democratic primary election, even while other states are cautiously proceeding. Confusion about primaries, especially after the Iowacaucus debacle, has already led to fervent rumor-mongering and conspiracy-spreading on Twitter. Bungling the way the public is informed of an intentional postponement could be even worse. As well, Facebook took down advertisements after Democrats and activists called out Trump's reelection campaign for an ad that confusingly read, “President Trump needs you to take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today.”
Meanwhile, black Americans continue to be targeted by misinformation campaigns with potentially deadly consequences. Just this week, CNN investigated Russian connections to an influence operation, where Africans posed as black Americans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in an attempt to gain followers and capture attention on racial wedge issues. The second campaign involved health misinformation, where untrue rumors about black people being immune to Covid-19 were circulating at the same time that black celebrities posted a coronavirus conspiracy video.
Assessing the impact of misinformation is complicated, and once it is politicized it can can also be overstated or understated. Yet, as social-media companies have learned, doing nothing about abuse on their platforms can kill. Social distancing, though, will surely make our ability to combat an infodemic more difficult, especially as our touch points with our neighbors dwindle.
How could platforms rise to the occasion? Social-media companies must sort, rank, and prioritize true and reliable information now more than ever. Web companies such as Pinterest have already introduced headers and links on their homepages with information about Covid-19, for example.
But misinformation isn’t just a problem of content; it’s also one of transmission. In desperate situations, government officials can activate emergency alert systems across mobile phones, cable TV, and radio to reach the public. Today, however, no such emergency protocols exist for social media. As the WHO battles the coronavirus infodemic, what assurances does the public need that critical information is prioritized?
These emergency alert systems should include social platform companies, so that the transmission of critical information is possible. There are different ways to achieve this, but repurposing online advertising infrastructure to ensure that users get local, timely, and reliable information is just one way to meet this challenge. Platform companies also have a unique window into local behavior: they could help uncover needs in local communities and match people in need of food and medicine to neighborhood resources.
Importantly, there is no perfect communication delivery system, which means we must use all of them to send the same messages to the public. This is the only way to keep rumors from filling the void left by unanswered questions.
Our democracy—and our lives—depend on it.
Joan Donovan is director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.