Disinformation throughout social media and the online space is rife receiving billions of views and engagements from across the world. It is such a big issue, that MPs are seeking to make teaching children about online misinformation compulsory at schools across the country. Disinformation and fake news dominates websites, social media platforms and generates around $2.6 billion in advertising revenue solely through misinformation publishing sites.The UK government is making an effort to introduce a new Online Safety bill, that forces tech firms to commit to protecting children from harmful content and activity shifting the responsibility onto social media companies. It is key to explore the issues at hand and work out how dangerous is it for different age groups. From this analysis we can discover what can be done to protect yourself, the young people you may work with and others against online disinformation.

Definitions: Disinformation is false information deliberately spread to deceive people. It is sometimes confused with misinformation, which is false information but is not deliberate

Whose fault is it anyway? The rise of social media disinformation

Social media platforms are well known for facilitating dis/misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news, despite numerous and ongoing policies and teams designed to counter monitor these activities. This is especially the case with platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. The hashtag ‘#conspiracy theories’ has 3.4 billion views on Tik Tok. Further, a research report says nearly 20% of videos presented by TikTok’s search engine contain misinformation. Equally Instagram has played a large part in the spread of dis/misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news, especially during the COVID pandemic, with the soaring popularity of the anti-vaxx movement. This is demonstrated by the fact that Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram have been forced to remove around “12m pieces of harmful misinformation about vaccines and Covid-19” from the start of the pandemic up until March 2021.

Image: The BBC’s Marianna Spring’s Twitter page, which is full of fascinating investigations and examples of disinformation in the online space. @Mariannaspring

Algorithms

Algorithms play a large part in the spread of dis/misinformation. Algorithms are pieces of computer codes that make decisions or recommendations. This often however results in repeated content on social media that the user has engaged in appearing time and time again and eventually filling up their feed. As a result, if people have engaged in extremist content, conspiracy theories or fake news, this type of content will continue to flood their feed. As one article reports: “The more incendiary the material, the more it keeps users engaged, the more it is boosted by the algorithm”. Further, UNICEF theorises “the algorithms that are designed to serve up content that captures user attention and encourage sharing are also likely to promote misleading clickbait, conspiratorial rhetoric, and harmful mis/disinformation”.  Consequently, the algorithmic design of social media platforms play huge roles in maintaining high levels of engagement in dis/misinformation riddled content.

Who’s watching mainstream news when it’s all about the influencers?

The impact of online dis/misinformation on young people can be extremely harmful. Young people tend to be the most active on social media, as well as being the most impressionable and vulnerable. One of the questions we often ask educators and those working with young people in our workshops is “do you know what socials your young people use?  How familiar are you with the basic workings?  How does this differ from online gaming spaces where some of your young people may be active participants? “These are all crucial questions that adults and those responsible for young people should know the answer too, as these platforms, video games and the types of content are frequently changing. It is important to understand these spaces if educators are to figure out how to combat issues that arise from them for young people. According to recent studies: “Instagram is the most popular news source among young people and is now used as the main news source by 29 percent of teens, with TikTok and YouTube close behind on 28 percent”. Given that social media often consists of a wide range of dis/misinformation, with platforms like TikTok proven to be widespread with conspiracy theories that lack evidence, the impact on those young and impressionable minds is likely to be dangerous, to say the least. The formation of ‘echo chambers’ in which similar opinions or ideas are bounced off each other, which is reinforced by algorithms will likely mean that the presence of dis/misinformation will affect young people to a higher degree than other age groups. Especially given that the critical thinking skills that allow for the balanced analysis of information are often still developing in this age cohort.

The impact of dis/misinformation on adults

The impact of social media dis/misinformation often has a different, but nevertheless worrying impact on adults. There is still a plethora of issues surrounding dis/misinformation spread when it comes to adults on social media. The angle is, however, slightly different.

We all have those “Uncles/Aunts/relatives” unintentionally spreading fake news and rumours through instant messaging sites such as WhatsApp, and this was especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Equally, many of us have known adults or parents/guardians showing us posts containing mis/disinformation on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. For instance, one study reports how: “On average, American Facebook users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as those aged between 18 and 29”.

Worryingly, in the UK, 49% of children aged 12-15 find it difficult to identify if social media news is true in the UK]The angle with adults as suggested by the data cited here, in fact largely differs from the case of young people being impacted by online dis/misinformation. The situation with adults comes down not to the fact that they are uniquely impressionable and vulnerable in their developing minds, outlook, and experience. It is in fact that they are naïve and lack experience in the use of social media. Unlike in traditional news outlets, where a significant amount of evidence and expertise is required to spread relevant newsworthy information, social media does not have such requirements or filters. Thus, this can lead to adults, operating in a changing media space in which news is generally seen to be trustworthy . As a result, it often is the case that adults trust and spread dis/misinformation posted by ordinary people that is advertised as factual and/or lacks evidence and expertise.

The impact on adults is perhaps more challenging since they may share such dis/misinformation with both other adults as well as young family members who are more vulnerable. Young family members are also perhaps more likely to trust and believe their adult peers or parents. As a result, the dissemination and absorption of information by adults can have a potential negative and highly influential impact on both other adults and young people in families.

 Disinformation with more traditional media outlets

Disinformation is not however limited to the bubble of social media platforms as more traditional media outlets have sometimes played a large part in spreading disinformation. For example, a partnership as part of Microsoft’s ‘Defending Democracy Programme’ concluded “Mail Online, one of the world’s biggest news websites, one out of five on credibility – the same level as the Kremlin-backed RT news service.” Equally, The Sun among other newspapers is widely known for pushing out unreliable, untrustworthy, and exaggerated news and headlines.

Image: A piece of dis/misinformation from the Daily Mail

As we can see by such exaggerated headlines, dis/misinformation has always been a dangerous issue, and it is important that we remind ourselves that it is not restricted to social media. Adults especially spreading exaggerated and misleading articles has always been all too common, social media and the lack of expertise on a poster level just increases the vastness of this practice, just with the addition of a younger audience.

So, who really is to blame?

Where the blame should be placed is a complex matter.

Media companies?

Both social media companies and traditional media outlets have a responsibility to prevent the spread of dis/misinformation and avoid pushing out dis/misinformation. Indeed, there are several policies, employees and teams dedicated to such practices, but this is still limited in its impact given the statistics talked about earlier. It is also crucial that algorithms are shaped and/or monitored in such a way so that they avoid promoting dangerous and misleading content. It is thus largely the responsibility of those who own, shape and control the platforms to prevent the spread of dis/misinformation. Currently, the UK government is trying to make social media companies legally responsible for keeping children and young people safe online as part of the Online Safety bill’.

Young people?

Herrero-Diz and colleagues found that young people cared less about the accuracy of articles than their novelty or uniqueness. They concluded that the students in their study were “moved by the power of attraction of conspicuous, emotional, or outrageous language to camouflage hoaxes, rumours, or manipulations, under the guise of reliable information”. In part the culture of young people in sharing such articles for fun rather than using their critical thinking skills and asking adults who they know and trust about such articles can be considered. This view is however limited, as young people are often vulnerable as they lack strong critical thinking skills and are not aware of the negative impact of such dis/misinformation. This is why we at ConnectFutures run workshops to equip young people with key critical thinking skills.

Adults/Parents/Guardians?

Adults/guardians have a part to play in the rise of dis/misinformation. On one hand they are involved in the spread of articles containing such information whether it be through social media, WhatsApp groups or accepting every article at face value. Unlike young people, adults should have developed their own critical thinking skills.

Further, it is the role of adults/guardians to ensure that young people are not engaging with and sharing dangerous or false information online. It is also imperative that this group safeguards the young people that they are responsible for by teaching them the critical thinking skills necessary to discern the difference between different information.

Ultimately, there are multiple people within the chain who hold responsibility for the continued and worrying rise of dis/misinformation online, all must take responsibility and ensure they are doing what they can to control such a dangerous rise. The potential introduction of the online safety bill could potentially be an additional step toward assigning greater responsibility to social media companies for monitoring social media content and its impacts.

Steps to protect yourself and others

Image: Key critical thinking skills

  1. Always question information, regardless of where it comes from, use your critical thinking skills. Question where does it come from? What are the intentions of posting such information? Fact-check individual parts of the information from multiple trusted sources and look at the opposing views or competing information to get a fuller picture. Don’t just share something because it seems true or because those you know and trust are sharing it, question and research first. If you are a young person, don’t be scared to ask an adult as well.
  2. as your peers what they think of it, this may give you a fuller picture of different perspectives.
  3. When viewing an image that’s gone viral, always check the full picture. Is it the whole story? Has the picture been manipulated? Has it been edited (check on tineye.com), when was the clip released and why?
  4. Adults/Guardians/Practitioners make sure you aren’t just sharing articles or information without fact checking and researching for yourself. Critical thinking skills and the questions mentioned in point 1 are crucial. Ensure that the young people in your life are engaging with and sharing information that is reliable and fact checked.
  5. Question young people about the information they are engaging with and any thoughts they have on things they’ve read online in a curious and respectable manner. Be open with young people and tell them that they can talk to you about anything they like, or any questions they have and that if they feel unsure about something, they can ask. Equally, it is important to teach young people the key critical thinking skills of questioning sources and information. But make sure you learn the important steps first, there’s no point putting others oxygen masks on if you haven’t got yours on first.

How can ConnectFutures help?

We at ConnectFutures provide expert facilitators to deliver workshops in a variety of forms and to a diversity of audiences across the UK. These workshops are with the aim of increasing knowledge, resilience and confidence in preventing extremism and serious violence, challenging hate, and promoting equality and justice. Specifically in relation to the issues discussed here, we deliver sessions on the following: fake news, conspiracy theories and truth. Safeguarding Against Online Extremism (SAVE). Incels, misogyny and the manosphere. Rise of far right, mixed ideology and hateful extremism.

I have also written an article entitled: ‘Incels, chads, misogyny and problematic terrorism overlaps: A young person’s perspective’.

For more information on the workshops delivered by ConnectFutures, please check out the link here