In the scramble for reliable information about the coronavirus, a new report found that famous people with large social media followings are playing a critical role in the dissemination of misinformation.
According to a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford Internet Institute, high-level politicians, celebrities, and prominent public figures generated 69% of the social media engagement around coronavirus misinformation even though they accounted for only 20% of the misleading posts in a sample. The authors of the report chalk this up to the large followings these people have that boosts their rates of interaction.
In tracing the pathways of misinformation, the report did not specifically name the authors of the posts, but rather described them as “high-level elected officials, celebrities, and other prominent public figures (including a US-based technology entrepreneur).” Collectively, this group was labeled “top down.”
The authors relied on a data set created by an international consortium of fact checkers called First Draft. The report said that coronavirus misinformation has been straining the resources of fact checkers with the number of English-language fact increasing 900% between January and March this year.
For the study, the researchers examined 225 pieces of misinformation labeled false or misleading by First Draft. Of this group, 59% represented some form of “reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualized, or reworked.” A smaller group of 38% were labeled “completely fabricated.”
The role that larger personalities play in spreading information points to the need to closely monitor these accountants and respond with fact checking quickly to limit their diffusion.
At the same time, there is still a much larger number of posts generated by smaller accounts that represent 31% percent of the social media engagement around misinformation. This poses a separate problem for fact checkers because each account has a smaller reach but put together, they are still having an impact.
For the moment, the report didn’t find much evidence that deep fakes or other AI-driven tools are playing a big role in misinformation.