Journalism

Fighting the infodemic will require storytelling, broad coalitions of journalists, academics and residents

Alongside the pandemic, we’ve also had a parallel crisis: the infodemic, an unending stream of dis- and misinformation flooding social media feeds and online discussions. These types of rumors and falsehoods aren’t new, but the scale with which they spread online is unprecedented, allowing everyone from foreign governments to solo scammers to twist narratives down to the hyper-local level. A good example is the recent New York Times story showing how people in communities of color in the U.S. are hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccines because of misinformation about them from Russian-backed websites such as Sputnik and Russia Today.

The 2021 Knight Media Forum included numerous discussions about the infodemic and the growing awareness that social media and technology firms have caused harm and must help repair the damage. Researchers have been coming together more than ever to fight the problem, working with journalists, policy makers and even citizens to help come up with lasting solutions beyond the whack-a-mole approach of banning people from platforms. And with the new law in Australia forcing tech platforms to negotiate payments to news publishers, there’s finally a changing business dynamic between platforms and publishers.

Beyond Australia, regulators around the world are taking on the growing influence of technology companies, which many Americans believe have too much power, according to a Gallup/Knight survey. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have come under increasing scrutiny, and a new bill proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) would penalize monopolistic practices up to 15% of annual revenue – much more than the previous $100 million fine cap.

The importance of storytelling in debunking misinformation

During the pandemic, there has been a flood of misinformation about the origin of the coronavirus, potential cures and the safety of vaccines. During the panel, “COVID-19: Navigating the World’s First Infodemic,” speakers discussed the importance of having trusted local news in communities. Elisabeth Rosenthal of Kaiser Health News said that her organization’s  work in local markets helped debunk misinformation on the ground.

“We used to work with mostly larger media organizations but now have opened bureaus in Montana, Missouri, the Central Valley in California, and bring in people from these areas so we understand the people we are talking about,” she said. “Last year it was great to have an investigation in the Washington Post, but I’m more excited to have a story in all the major publications in Montana explaining how important masks are.”

Not only does the accurate information have to be distributed in local markets, but it has to be told as narratives, as human-centered stories that people can relate to. Deborah Blum of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program noted that people remember these stories better than simple facts.

“People don’t want to be lectured because it assumes you’re not that smart,” Blum said. “A story allows us to share facts without having to look down on our audience. Narrative magic is weaving in the facts and pulling you through with the strength of the story… It’s one of the best things we do.”


Rosenthal agreed with Blum. “Facts are cold and people are warm. We need to make facts much warmer,” Rosenthal said.

During a breakout session, “COVID 19 Funds — Informing Underserved Communities,”

Roxanne Stafford spoke about the power of harnessing “Black joy,” and the lived experiences of community members.

“Underserved communities know how to do the work, they have the answers within them,” she said. The Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund supported projects by a variety of organizations and community members not usually targeted by philanthropy: youth, community sharing spaces, returning citizens describing the impact of the pandemic’s isolation on those who had formerly been imprisoned. The media they produced ranged from podcasts to talk media to film and beyond. 

For example, feminist collective Comadre Luna provided information through multiple touchpoints, ranging from short audio clips to WhatsApp to a digital zine. This not only allows for creativity, Stafford said, but helps audience members to share and retain knowledge, and swap personal stories that allow them to build confidence in the resources being provided. 

Broad coalitions needed to fight the problem

While the infodemic has grown, so have a plethora of initiatives to fight it within academia, journalism, public policy and beyond. But because of the scale of the problem, the best solutions include broad coalitions that bring together people from multiple disciplines in new ways. Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory talked about the success of the Electoral Integrity Partnership, which included communicators, government, civil society and researchers, and was effective at detecting misinformation. The Observatory replicated that model with The Virality Project, focused on fighting vaccine misinformation.

“When we were doing the work on the election, there were very clear partner [roles] because they had been designated in government… with all the secretary of states and local officials together in a community and sharing their own information back and forth,” she said. “There was a chain of command that enabled correct messages to be produced promptly. But that’s been missing in public health at the state and local level. The detection is the easiest thing at this point… The question is what do you do with the information when you know it’s coming. Predicting it’s coming isn’t the same thing as preventing it from happening.”

This new level of collaboration was also discussed during the breakout session, “Countering the 2020 Infodemic.” Jevin West of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public talked about the multidisciplinary approach that’s necessary to fight the huge level of disinformation online. He mentioned one researcher who studied the collective behavior of fish, and was now applying that to the behavior of people online. 

“The problem can’t be solved by individuals or one discipline,” he said. “We have to talk to people about their values and perspectives and how that relates to how we see the origins of conspiracy theories…I’ve seen more so than any time groups coming together and putting aside differences and sharing data and research. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

And First Draft News’ Claire Wardle noted that debunking efforts have to involve the public too, so it’s not left to academics and elites. “I would like to think about innovative research design which brings the public into these things…We had five [First Draft] fellows in battleground states and they were our eyes and ears and the scale was incredible…From a funding perspective it’s hard to scale, but you have to have people on the ground.”

West echoed Wardle’s comments, saying that his center’s mission included being embedded in communities. The center has worked with a local Vietnamese group in Seattle that was targeted for election misinformation, and the local AARP chapter, with people finding misinformation on their Facebook and Twitter posts that researchers never would have found. “[The AARP members] can come back to us to provide the context we need,” he said. “You can’t do this without their background and perspectives. I believe very strongly in this.”

Australia leading the way in reining in tech platforms

While Facebook and Google have been “frenemies” with the public and news publishers, providing world-changing technology not always for the good of society, Microsoft had been on the sidelines of the discussion around the infodemic and the broken business models for local news. That’s changed rapidly over the past year, as Microsoft funded local news initiatives in five diverse locales around the country, working with community foundations to organize fundraising for local publishers. And when Australia was working on its new law forcing tech platforms to negotiate compensation with publishers, Microsoft came out in favor of it, putting pressure on Google to come to the table.

In a keynote conversation with Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen, Microsoft President Brad Smith said that his company met with Australia’s prime minister and said they were comfortable with the law.

“We had a meeting with the PM and said if Google leaves, we will stay. We are comfortable with the law, and we like running our search service and sharing revenues with news publishers,” Smith said. “Within 24 hours of us endorsing the law… Google said they would find a way to get deals done.”

The underlying issue is that 82% of all digital advertising revenues in Australia goes to Google or Facebook, Smith said, so the issue is “generating better revenues for people whose livelihood is creating this content that people need.”

Microsoft is trying to help on that front with its local news initiative, sending funding for local news through community foundations, providing discounted or free technology support and expanding distribution through Microsoft News, Bing and MSN.

“If tech platforms are benefiting from the news, it’s appropriate to share revenues with publishers,” Smith said. “We create more opportunities for creators to benefit from broader distribution. We’re learning that in pilot programs in different parts of the country… Local news organizations are coming together to produce news and distribute it widely, share the costs and expand the reach.”


Mark Glaser is a consultant and advisor with a focus on supporting local and independent news in America. He was the founder and executive director of MediaShift.org, and is an associate at Dot Connector Studio, and innovation consultant at the New Mexico Local News Fund.