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Ethical Tech

The dangers of digital disinformation

Inside Telecom Staff

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Digital disinformation

The Corona crisis is the first pandemic in the era of 5G. In today’s competitive and reactive market place, scammers, hackers, conspiracy theorists etc. continue to put out false information that is now spreading quicker than ever.

American Professor, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, from the University of Pennsylvania calls this “viral disinformation”. However, what happens now, when this viral disinformation meets an actual virus like COVID-19?

This tends to end in a predictable storyline where one side of the divide points fingers at the government and the other side claims that it is the media that are simply scare-mongering. Yet, what all this misses is the actual role that digital information is playing as viral disinformation continues to spread undetected online.

There is still very much that we are unsure of with regards to COVID-19. However, given the current aggression of the crisis, it seems fair to suggest that it is not disappearing any time soon. Obviously, both governments and the media have imperative roles to play with regards to their response to the outbreak. However, individuals also have a social responsibility in how they choose to communicate and interpret the information they read.

Public companies have a duty to their staff, customers, and shareholders to think clearly and cautiously about how they communicate information about COVID-19. The CEO of a company and how they handle the looming crisis, is now similar to that of a politician as every move is watched and analyzed.

Government authorities should also follow public health guidelines for pandemics. The population should be informed of what they know, what they do not know, and what they are doing about the unknown information. Public spokespeople should calmly communicate facts with no aspects of speculation.

This also applies to schools, universities, gyms, and other organisations that come with a duty to protect the people they bring together and avoid spreading gossip filled with unscientific disinformation.

So many of these groups have now followed such recommendations and the guidelines of health officials worldwide by cancelling large gatherings and sending students home etc. This is of course easily communicated in the digital world.

But what is also important, are individuals with an internet connection. The average person today has substantial power with regards to how they are able to interpret and communicate information. The question is, will that power cultivate good or perpetuate the spread of viral disinformation?

There are two communication guidelines that can assist those who come with no background in public health to make sure that they are using their digital power to help the international community contain the spread if COVID-19. This can be thought of as digital hand-washing.

  • Before re-tweeting, sharing, or liking anything, stop for a moment and consider the source. Where did it come from? Has it come from the state’s public health department or from your friend who is not a doctor but has watched every single episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

If it does seem like a reliable source, then click back to the source’s website and check to see if it is a legitimate news media channel. If you have never heard of it then stop. There is an increasing trend in viral disinformation to create and develop fake news sites with the digital sophistication of a reliable media channel – a fancy logo, a serious name, sufficient content – all making a site look trustworthy when it actually isn’t.

  • Second, do not just be a passive receiver of information. Check the reality yourself.

Whether we are in the US, the UK, Europe, or Asia, our taxes fund public health institutions. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employs more than 15,000 doctors’ epidemiologists and pandemic response experts. They also have communication professionals who are able to translate such expertise and knowledge into advice and recommendations written thoroughly, and in a variety of languages on their website, which is constantly updated.

These guidelines may sound simplistic. However, much like washing our hands, if everyone takes the accuracy of the information they receive seriously, we all stand a higher chance of lessoning the impact of COVID-19. Furthermore, when the world is able to look back on COVID-19, the same principles may also be used to start closing the divide in society that is motivated by unchecked flow of online viral disinformation.

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Ethical Tech

Law in France forces social media platforms to remove online hate speech

Inside Telecom Staff

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Law in France forces social media platforms to remove online hate speech

The most recent law passed in France has continued to fuel the controversial debate of ‘free speech or censorship?’

The law has put more pressure on tech platforms to remove hateful comments considered “manifestly illicit” – which might be based on religion, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation and sexual harassment – within 24 hours after they are flagged by users. Content that engages in terrorism or child pornography must be removed within one hour of being flagged.

The National Assembly – who passed the new legislation – has given platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat strict deadlines to remove content. If the companies fail to cooperate, they can face fines of up to 4% of their global revenue.

The law aims to “induce responsibility” from the creators of online platforms who argue “that the tool they themselves have created is uncontrollable,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The law also sets up a prosecutor specialized in digital content and a government unit to continually observe online hate speech. “People will think twice before crossing the red line if they know that there is a high likelihood that they will be held to account,” Belloubet said.

The matter of social media censorship is a very controversial one. Whilst indeed, harmful content and one that encourages criminal activity or discrimination should be removed to protect users, it calls into question speech in other contexts when discussion comprises of a personal opinion that may or may not offend others but will be removed because it does not conform to one set of guidelines. Some might argue that personal opinion represents our civil liberties and when censored – impinges upon individual freedom of expression and curbs the right to access free flowing information.

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Ethical Tech

Online news content and mental health

Inside Telecom Staff

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Online news content and mental health

Across the world, many of us are in lockdown, which either means that we are working from home or not working at all. Inevitably, this has an effect on our mental health. 46% of people in a recent survey say that their mental health is now worse than it was pre-coronavirus. Another thing indicated by the survey, is that the more we consume televised and online news, the worse our mental health becomes. The worst of the online news is that of social media, however Facebook was not the main offender on this occasion, the main culprit was Reddit.

Apparently, 57.6% of people who use Reddit as their primary social platform for COVID-19, stated that they felt their mental health was worse. 19.8% commented that it was the same and 22.6% said that it was better.

We are now spending an average of 53 minutes a day consuming news coverage which mainly revolves around COVID-19. The survey, conducted by streaming media service, flexed, was comprised of a study from 1009 people. Women have increased their news consumption the most, doubling from 27.9 minutes per day pre-pandemic to 53.7 minutes per day, currently.

It is well known that the more we watch news or read it online, the more likely we are to feel worse, however, this seems to be more relevant when news is consumed through social media. 

Individuals who had reported that their mental health had declined since the beginning of the year, watched an average of 73 minutes of online news content every day – according to the study. In stark contrast, those who watched only an hour of news each day, said that they felt their mental health had improved since the beginning of the year.

The most popular platform for news consumption was of course Facebook. 35.8% stated that it was their primary social media source for COVID-19 news. Twitter was the primary news source for 17% and 16.3% said that it was YouTube.

Only 12.4% used Reddit as their primary social source of COVID- 19 news, however what was surprising is that almost 60% of that 12.4% said that their mental health was worse in comparison to 41.6% for Facebook and 43% for Twitter. In regards to YouTube, 32.3% said that their mental health was worse however, 46.6% felt that it was better.

When reading and watching news on the COVID-19 pandemic, we are dealing with challenges such as what is true, what is false, when will things reopen, and what is medically effective against the virus. The setting is also highly politicized and on social media there is much room for disagreement. In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, this disagreement could have life or death consequences, not to mention substantial financial consequences. It is not surprising therefore, that such disagreement and uncertainty makes people online feel both angry and anxious. 

So why was Reddit the worst platform according to the study?   

The platform has been the perfect foundation for active conspiracy theories and its leadership has so far resisted the moderation measures adopted by its competitors, like Twitter. Troubling and misleading posts continue to be spread across Reddit, despite the efforts of some very well-intentioned moderators.

Of course, the challenge lies in judging content for ourselves, in terms of what is true and what is fake, and while it might be fairly easy to disprove the link between 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic, other conspiracy theories like those around the origins of the pandemic, the reasons for the lockdown, or the causes of death reported as COVID-19, are much more unclear. 

The problem seems to come from unofficial news being reported by multiple people on one platform. Even with sites such as Facebook and Twitter, news containing misleading and fake information has been taken down, however with Reddit, such news is still rife and unregulated- where it’s seems that anyone and everyone is a journalist. 

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Ethical Tech

Social networks – fighting misinformation, supporting global initiatives

Inside Telecom Staff

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Social networks

With the new measures of social distancing and self-isolation, technology has become an ever-more essential tool for communication. In fact, our need to stay connected digitally has never been more crucial at a time when social interaction has shifted away from the physical realm to the world of social networking. Digital communication has provided us with the comfort of daily interactions, medical advice and news updates to keep us informed at a time when most of us have been urged to stay indoors.

As such, social networks and online communication services are beginning to see the user impact during this phase of COVID-19. It’s something Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO mentioned in a press call last week, but on Monday, the company provided figures to confirm the surge in use levels.

A report has stated that 70% more people are participating in group video calls using Facebook Messenger week-over-week, and the amount of time spent on group video calls has doubled across the globe. Voice and videocalls on WhatsApp have seen a similar increase with participation use having more than doubled in areas impacted most by the virus.

As we are seeing, the spread of misinformation has also reached alarming levels– with many people questioning the validity of news alerts and medical advice on social media – not knowing what to believe. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook were among the earliest sources of accurate COVID-19 information. But since a great number of the global population have been confined to their homes, social platforms have become a place to exchange thoughts, (false) theories and personal experiences which has drowned out real coronavirus information. Many users may be well-meaning but unknowingly spreading inaccurate information. Oftentimes, those with the loudest voices, namely celebrities and politicians can have the most harmful effects on a community, if they happen to broadcast something that is simply not true.

But although there has been an overwhelming number of fake coronavirus content that serves to instil fear and stir confusion, social media platforms are also providing valuable opportunity for professionals to offer guidance and information to communities who are in need of support. In the UK alone, one million Facebook users belong to one of the 1,000 COVID-19 local support groups on the platform (link to report found above). Facebook today, also expressed their determined efforts to support global initiatives by utilizing social networking services for the greater good. They will continue connecting government health organizations and UN health agencies to their developer partners who will help these entities use Messenger more effectively to scale their response to COVID-19 – in regard to information distribution, general inquiries and query response-time.

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