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Combating misinformation in 2021: Insights for publishers from NiemanLab

“Americans consumed twice as much dubious news in 2020 as they did in 2019,” reports Emily Stewart, Journalist, It was the pandemic coupled with a presidential election that made 2020 a “boom time for homegrown disinformation agents,” says Brandy Zadrozny, Reporter, NBC News. 

Zadrozny has reported on online misinformation at NBC News for the last three years, and is one of several people from journalism and media that NiemanLab invited to write for their Predictions for journalism 2021 series.  

Here we look into the insights they shared about misinformation. 

“Amazingly resilient and adaptable”

“If we learned one thing from monitoring false news in 2020, it’s that misinformation publishers are amazingly resilient and adaptable,” writes Matt Skibinski, GM, NewsGuard

If users tire of one conspiracy theory or false claim, these operations will simply pivot to a new, more interesting topic. When a conspiracy theory or hoax is proven wrong, they’ll simply adapt the claim, even if the new claim contradicts previous ones. And when audiences turn their focus to a specific news topic, like a global pandemic, misinformation publishers follow the clicks.

Matt Skibinski, GM, NewsGuard and Reader Revenue Advisor, Lenfest Institute

Skibinski’s company NewsGuard monitors and rates the trustworthiness of news websites. Of the 370+ sites identified by the company for publishing misinformation around COVID-19, more than 80% had previously been flagged for publishing misinformation on other topics. 

These included claims like 5G cell phone technology causes COVID-19 or that garlic infusions can cure it. The same publishers had claimed earlier that 5G causes cancer and apricot seeds can cure it.

“The tactics weren’t new. The falsehoods themselves were barely new. The only thing that had changed was the topic,” reiterates Skibinski. 

And he expects that to continue as the leading news stories change. NewsGuard found that more than 60% of the sites that were publishing voting and election falsehoods had done the same with COVID-19 earlier in 2020. And now they would likely pivot to misinformation around vaccinations as the process takes-off worldwide.

In the mind of the public, disinformation is a series of endlessly creative and unpredictable attacks by unknown actors. In reality, much of what flies around is pretty predictable. It’s the same narratives, the same stories, the same techniques. It’s the same people spreading it, rotating in a limited number of new celebrities and plot twists each season.

Mike Caulfield, Civic Fellow, American Democracy Project/AASCU

“Eroding one of the biggest incentives for publishing misinformation”

Combating misinformation would require “concerted effort from a wide range of stakeholders in this coming year,” says Skibinski. And they include advertisers, ad exchanges, and agencies as most misinformation publishers generate revenue through programmatic advertising.  

If more brands, agencies, and ad exchanges begin to prioritize misinformation as an element of advertising brand safety, it will shift the unit economics of digital content away from sensational false stories designed to draw clicks, eroding one of the biggest incentives for publishing misinformation. 

Matt Skibinski, GM, NewsGuard and Reader Revenue Advisor, Lenfest Institute

It would also lead to an increase in the ad revenue flowing towards credible news sources. 

Next come the platforms. Nearly all of the publishing industry insiders who wrote on misinformation for NiemanLab think that platforms need to do a lot more to combat misinformation.  

”Little is likely to change in 2021 unless and until platforms take actual responsibility for the way people gather and organize on them,” writes Zadrozny. “Admitting that their algorithms already guide what we see, who we speak to, what we buy, and what we believe, and working with outside experts to instead curate an experience that undoes a bit of the pollution that they’ve made.”

Skibinski wants the platforms to take more responsibility and provide more transparency around their efforts to combat misinformation. “Despite their many public announcements about efforts to combat misinformation this year, platforms like Facebook continue to fall short.” 

He writes that after Facebook said it would place fact-checker warnings on COVID-19 misinformation, NewsGuard found that misinformation “Super-Spreader” accounts were still spreading myths about the pandemic. Moreover, 63% of these posts had no fact-check or warning attached, even weeks after publication. 

“Perfect opportunity to take advantage of fact-checking as data”

Coming to publishers and journalists, they may need to reconsider their news reporting strategies. Bill Adair, Founder of PolitiFact, suggests using structured data. “The time is right for structured journalism, because our chaotic battle over misinformation is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of fact-checking as data,” he writes

Liars say the same things over and over, which makes the fact-check we wrote last week or last month valuable for an extended period. So if fact-checkers add some simple tags to index their articles, search engines and other platforms can match the lie with the correction. 

Bill Adair, Founder of PolitiFact

He refers to a tagging system called ClaimReview created by his team at the Duke Reporters’ Lab in collaboration with Google, Jigsaw, and 

Most fact-checkers around the world now add ClaimReview tags to their articles. These fact-checks are available through an open database and anyone, whether it’s an organization or individual, can access them. Google and YouTube use ClaimReview to highlight fact-checks in their search results. And Google News users saw over 4B fact-checks in the first eight months of 2020.

“Tell interesting stories with less drama and more science”

Zizi Papacharissi, Professor, University of Illinois–Chicago writes “journalists, editors, and decision makers must involve scientists in their processes of storytelling.” 

Putting commentators and self-proclaimed analysts on air can make for more dramatic news and might increase ratings for a short while. But it drives away audiences in the long term. 

Zizi Papacharissi,Professor, University of Illinois–Chicago

“To this end, scientists must learn to tell better stories about their findings,” she adds. “To make their research more relatable. And journalists must find ways to tell interesting stories with less drama and more science.”

Think of truth as a puzzle. Not all pieces of the puzzle have equal size or occupy center stage, but somehow they all fit in. Some pieces don’t belong in the center, or as journalism professor Jay Rosen argues, if a narrative is false or inaccurate, it needs to be weighed differently or de-centered. That’s how the story comes together.

Zizi Papacharissi, Professor, University of Illinois–Chicago