The Covid-19 outbreak has raised afresh the debate about the dangers of misinformation on social media. During the time of the pandemic, myths about coronavirus cures and treatments, its origins and the reasons behind it were widely spread on social network platforms leading in cases to dangerous and even fatal actions such as bleach consumption. To this end, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, urged for the need to address the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.
Gaps in information hygiene guidelines
Framing misinformation within such a context places social media users in the centre of this multi-layered social phenomenon and demands a new appropriate approach to address it. To this end, social media users need to adopt what we call ‘information hygiene routines’ to protect themselves and their network against the ‘infodemic’ of rapidly spreading misinformation. We define Information hygiene routine as the practice of evaluating online information so to minimise the risk of consuming and spreading misinformation to one’s network. This practice significantly differs to fact checkers and fake news detection focusing on actively detecting and identifying ‘pathogens’ rather than on daily routine aiming to avoid “infection”.
Information hygiene guidelines such as “check the source of information”, “check whether the account is a bot”, and “flag untrustworthy information for the benefit of others” are regularly recommended by fact checkers, journalists and media literacy experts to help limit the spread of misinformation. No doubt such recommendations are very important but they are often too time-consuming or too difficult and complicated for the users to adopt as part of their everyday routine.
Illusory Truth Effect
European H2020 funded project EUNOMIA addresses this gap by developing tools to assist social media users in practicing information hygiene routines so to flatten the curve of ‘infodemic’. EUNOMIA toolkit cultivates media literacy skills empowering social media users to evaluate themselves the trustworthiness of online information. While trustworthiness is related to truthfulness, these concepts differ significantly. People do not always seek to verify whether online information is true or not. In some cases, the verification process can be very complex and difficult. Trustworthiness in this sense can be considered more important when consuming and spreading information. In fact, a person is inclined to perceive information as trustworthy and credible just because they are very familiar with it. This is what is called “illusory truth effect” in social psychology. Trustworthiness then is a subjective quality and, therefore, is in the eyes of the beholder. To this end, tools supporting the individual evaluation of trustworthiness are key to slow down the spread of misinformation and minimise its risks.
EUNOMIA project’s approach
EUNOMIA is adopting a positive-first approach to the information trustworthiness challenge in social media which empowers users to critically assess the information they consume and protect their network against misinformation spread. EUNOMIA provides a toolkit in the form of a social media companion that can currently be implemented in decentralised and open access social media platforms such as Mastodon and Diaspora*. The social media companion offers multiple trustworthiness indicators for users to select and display their preferred ones to support their assessment. This may include indicators of bot activity, such as the ratio of followers to following, and other indicators co-developed with social media users themselves or identified in the scientific literature such as the objectivity of a post. EUNOMIA also visualises the modifications of online information in between different users’ posts in an information cascade. This means that EUNOMIA users can see how a piece of information might have changed when shared or re-shared by different users and/or in different periods of time. So, the user can see all the different versions of the same piece of information and the ‘journey’ of potential modification conducted.
EUNOMIA encourages the active and collective participation of social media users to stop the spread of misinformation. Adopting user contribution guidelines, such as the recommendation to ‘flag untrustworthy information for the benefit of others’, EUNOMIA enables users to vote on content trustworthiness and act as trust-reference in their network. The number of votes constitutes one of the several trustworthiness indicators that might be used by other users to evaluate the information trustworthiness.
EUNOMIA project’s recommendations
EUNOMIA has developed the first systematic set of information hygiene recommendations that fall in four categories:
a) source of information
d) action to mitigate risk.
This set emerged from thorough desk-based research leading in identification and analysis of a large number of guidelines available online. These guidelines were then evaluated based on their practicality and evidence of their effectiveness. The identification and evaluation of the guidelines was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of EUNOMIA researchers assessing their practicality in terms of expertise and time required by the users to adopt. Similarly, the effectiveness of the guidelines was based on scientific evidence. The set of recommendations resulted – such as “Check whether the author is anonymous”, “check whether the language is used to make you emotional”- will be tested with end-users and inform the further development of EUNOMIA toolkit.
This article has been authored by Pinelopi Troullinou, Research Analyst at Trilateral Research, George Loukas, Associate Professor of Cyber Security at the University of Greenwich, and Diotima Bertel, Researcher & Project Coordinator at SYNYO.
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