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April 15, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:10am

Covid-19 and the rise of misinformation and misunderstanding

By Aisha Majid

The year 2020 was difficult on multiple fronts – and nowhere more so than in the battle for truth, a familiar casualty in times of crisis.

While the desire to know more about Covid-19, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, led to increased consumption of trusted news sources, trustworthy journalism has had to compete for attention.

A chaotic scramble for information, increased time spent online and the accelerated decline of local news have all increased the space for misinformation and conspiracy theory-driven news. As early as February, the World Health Organisation’s director-general declared: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic.”

Our analysis of traffic to the top 100 global English-language news sites reveals that while news consumption soared overall in 2020, untrustworthy news sites saw bigger surges in readership.

Our analysis used website visit metrics from SimilarWeb and data from journalism technology company NewsGuard which separates sites producing reliable journalism from those peddling false or misleading information. It found that total visits in 2020 to sites that NewsGuard considered untrustworthy (i.e. put in their “red” category) were up 70% compared to 2019. The number of visits to generally trustworthy (“green”) sites was 47% higher than in 2019.

Covid hasn’t been the only factor in this rise and arguably, at times, not even the biggest one. The climax of a hugely divisive US election also seems to have driven traffic to all sites, with untrustworthy (per NewsGuard) operations seeing the fastest increases.

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While green sites initially saw a bigger surge in traffic in the early days of the pandemic in March, red sites gradually saw a bigger relative increase in traffic over the summer.

This divergence peaked in November – US election month – when traffic to untrustworthy sites was 219% higher compared to January 2019 levels. Visits to reliable sites on the other hand were only 44% up on their January 2019 level in November.

Although untrustworthy sites saw the biggest relative increase in traffic, we found that when it came to the biggest news providers, readers overwhelmingly favoured trusted names.

Of the 11bn visits racked up by the 84 top 100 news sites with a NewsGuard rating, just 3% were to red-rated sites. Among them were conservative pro-Trump sites Breitbart and NewsMax as well as far-right Bulgarian-based news blog Zero Hedge.

[Read more: The new Trump bump: How Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and far-right outlets are taking on Fox News]

But while the top news sites for traffic are largely trusted sources, engagement with false and manipulative news sites is more prevalent through social media channels. In the UK, London mayoral candidate Brian Rose and the followers of former footballer David Icke (now banned from Facebook) are among the conspiracy theorists that command a lot of attention.

[Read more: Cash for conspiracies: How David Icke, ‘alternative’ media and tech giants make money from coronavirus conspiracies]

Combining NewsGuard’s data with NewsWhip engagement statistics for the top 100 US social media sites for Facebook interactions and Twitter shares, of the 98 sites classified by NewsGuard, 20 were rated red. A further five, while receiving a green rating, were deemed to fall short when it comes to gathering and presenting information responsibly, among them Fox News.

While engagement increased on all types of articles in 2020 compared to 2019, the increase in interactions was particularly high on articles from red sites. These saw an average engagement increase of 175% per article, in line with earlier findings from NewsGuard.

Extending the analysis to the top 100 social media news sources in the UK, we found that while engagement similarly had increased more on articles from untrustworthy sites than reliable ones (61% versus 45%), overall there were fewer untrustworthy sites in the UK list. Of the 74 top 100 sites which NewsGuard had rated, only three were red.

This is not surprising, says Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe at NewsGuard.

“The amount of engagement with websites that we have rated as publishing false information is drastically lower in the UK than in the US,” she says. “By far the most engaged-with outlet in the UK is the BBC but the US doesn’t have a BBC equivalent so in the US there is no such thing as a completely unbiased news outlet, other than maybe a Reuters or an AP – a newswire.”

She adds: “The BBC greatly benefits the UK and the lack of that in the US, I think has allowed for a rise in many more types of misinformation outlets.”

But it’s not only the number of red sites that matter, says Harling. It takes only a few influential players to spread a significant amount of misinformation.

“Websites that we had flagged previously for publishing health misinformation were ones that when the pandemic started continued to publish Covid-19 misinformation,” she says. “It indicates that misinformation tends to come from a handful of bad players who get a lot of engagement online and have an outsized impact on the discourse surrounding major topics.”

Such sites, dubbed “super-spreaders”, propagate Covid-19 myths such as false cures and causes. Although not all of them appear in the top 100 for engagement, their large followings (of 100,000 plus people) have helped repeat, share and amplify misinformation.

[Click here to subscribe to Press Gazette’s must-read newsletters, Future of Media and Future of Media – US]

Many of the purported news sites spreading misinformation through social media are domestic sources of news, debunking the idea that misinformation is mostly a foreign threat emanating from one or two countries.

“There’s been such a focus on foreign disinformation efforts – information coming especially from places like Russia and China,” says Harling. “But interestingly, over the last year, we’ve seen that the vast majority of misinformation is actually homegrown. It doesn’t take foreign-generated misinformation to affect political discourse, erode trust in the electoral process, and make us all turn on one another.”

But it’s not just quack and fake news sites that have reported inaccurate information.

Although generally falling short of misinformation, according to our analysis of data from fact-checking NGO Full Fact, even mainstream outlets such as the UK tabloids have made significant errors when reporting on Covid.

Based on a review of Full Fact fact-checks, we found that the most common type of error in the UK mass media’s coverage of Covid has been misreporting or misunderstanding of scientific research and studies. Of the 102 media errors by individual organisations we identified, 25% were related to miscommunicating science.

Complicating the already demanding task of accurately communicating complex scientific information – particularly for non-specialist reporters – has been the sharp increase in the number of articles on preprint servers during the pandemic. MedRxiv, the largest of these platforms, which allow researchers to quickly share findings before they have been peer-reviewed, saw the number of such articles posted in a single month surge from 37 in January to 1,961 in May.

Although reporters in the past have generally been hesitant to cover preprints, which are viewed among the scientific community as uncertain, research published in the Journal of Health Communication found that the pandemic has eased this reservation. Coverage of preprints on Covid outstripped coverage of preprints on other topics. 

“There was a real need for preprints in the scientific community as a way to share research early, but then the media were left with very little relevant, peer-reviewed research to cover,” says study lead author Alice Fleerackers. “So I think there was also a need in the journalism community to start reporting on these, which we haven’t really seen before.”

Crucially the study found that less than 60% of the 521 news reports in their sample indicated to readers that the information being reported was from research that had not been peer reviewed. 

The researchers did find, however, that some outlets did better than others. 

Almost 90% of articles from Wired made it clear that the research being reported was uncertain, in contrast to less than half the articles from the New York Times and The Conversation.

[Read more: The Conversation chief exec Chris Waiting on how pandemic has boosted readership and revenue]

While the researchers say that some outlets chose not to communicate uncertainty to avoid undermining the credibility of the media article, making clear what is not known is also important to building trust in news, says Fleerackers.

“Transparency and transparency about unknowns and uncertainties is actually really core to building trust,” she says. “Although it is not something we have studied ourselves, building a rapport with your audience where you’re explaining uncertainties consistently in your reporting should in the long-term lead to better trust in media, news and science which have all come under question in this pandemic.”

While Fleerackers says that preprints are not necessarily bad science, coverage of some non-peer-reviewed studies has inadvertently led to the public being misinformed. Two early studies claiming that smoking helps prevent Covid, which were subsequently questioned, led, among other things, to a rise in smoking in China, says Fleerackers.

And even a single media report on a preprint with a contradictory conclusion to the bulk of the evolving body of evidence can have widespread implications.

“If that [article] ends up getting a lot of media and public attention then you can end up misleading just by reporting on the minority position of science. It’s not really misinformation in the way we tend to think about it, but it has a similar effect,” says Fleerackers.

While some errors are inevitable in journalism, rectifying them should be routine practice.

According to press reform campaign group Hacked Off, however, a significant number of mistakes made by mass media outlets in the course of reporting of the pandemic were not addressed.

The organisation claims that national newspapers including the Sun and the Express published 55 “fake” news stories about Covid in 2020, on which it says action was taken in only a minority of cases.

Yet, while the data shows that 2020 has been a hard year for truth, Harling believes good journalism will shine through.

“I’m pretty optimistic about the future of journalism,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot of new outlets come out and while we do see closures of outlets there will be new ways – journalists always find ways to get information out and find new business models.

“By far, the most important thing in the fight against misinformation more broadly is to very closely examine and regulate the algorithms that essentially create the information ecosystems that people operate in on big tech platforms, social media and search results.”

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