As fake news spread like wildfire, UNESCO hopes to reconcile artificial intelligence and ethics to curb the infodemic. This tsunami of falsehood threatens to deepen the distrust between audiences and media, while our democratic stability might be at stakes.
By Geoffrey Comte
One pandemic can hide another. The Coronavirus attacks the cells whose function is to alert the immune system to the presence of danger. In an ageing Europe, this is a lethal risk. Misinformation is even more pernicious as it can directly impact public decision making as well as the mental health of citizens. This health crisis ushers in the era of digital pandemics, born from « pan » meaning all and « demos » embodying the people. We are all witnesses to the viralisation of false information that is multiplied, shared, and stored by the new communication and social technologies. A battery of neologisms has emerged to describe the phenomenon of production and dissemination of misleading content such as “infox”, “fake news” or “post-truth”. Lying seems to have become a political mode of action under the Trump administration, which alone has been responsible for more than 30,500 false statements during its presidential term1. The digital world does not have a monopoly on falsehood; it is shared by a growing mosaic of actors. The Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, Guy Berger, stated that disinformation “an only exist if it attacks freedom of expression because it is what exposes the agenda behind it”2. The fundamental issues are the scale of dissemination, the spontaneity, and the targeting capacity of such contents. On digital platforms, filtering algorithms have the task of selecting the information most likely to make the user react to maintain his attention on the application in question. Their traceability is becoming a crucial issue, as it is difficult to control the massive amount of information created each day and to identify its producers. These gaps that escape control are the breeding ground for the waves of infodemic that we experienced during the health crisis. The overabundance of information leads to infobesity according to Doctor Sylvie Briand, who is currently working at the World Health Organisation (WHO). Social networks amplify this ‘corona-panic’ while the deadly Ebola or AIDS viruses do not scare as much today. Fear is therefore a matter of perception and emotional stimulation. This informational surplus can lead to the creation of a climate of anxiety-inducing fear exacerbated by pressure from public authorities. This ad nauseam consumption leads to a generalised « Covid News fatigue » and therefore to a mistrust of state instructions.
In journalism we trust
Falsehood is faster than truth. According to Science magazine : false news is 70% more likely to be re-shared on Twitter while false information reaches 1,500 people 6 times faster than the truth.3 The novelty does indeed arouse more intense emotions such as disgust and surprise. They studied approximately 120,000 « cascades », defined as « instances of a rumour propagation pattern that presents an unbroken chain of retweets with a common and singular origin », on Twitter about disputed news stories tweeted by 3 million people over 4.5 million times. Guy Berger pointed out that giant tech companies “are not doing enough to stop promoting this kind of information and allow it to exist on platforms. But they are actually encouraging it because this content treads interest”. Algorithms are one of the main vectors of acceleration, still unable to distinguish between falsity and truth, even though the human factor remains the main variable of adjustments. According to the UNESCO expert, algorithms “amplified” the scale of the infodemic while also being “exploited” by GAFAM to realise profits through advertising. The very principle of news value is then called into question, as well as journalism itself. If a press card is no longer necessary to become a producer in the news market, then who has a monopoly on novelties? Nowadays, all it takes is an internet connection to write an article and another click to share the content on the web. This phenomenon leads to a heterarchy of information categories, which means that traditional hierarchies lose their meaning as former consumers and producers gradually reverse their roles.
Beyond the infodemic
Europe is sailing on the capricious seas of media saturation and institutional distrust4. As of 23 September 2020, the WHO, together with the UN and UNESCO, declares the fight against misinformation open. They state that falsehoods « cost lives » because they disrupt diagnoses, tests, and immunisation campaigns. False information also polarises public and scientific debate and violates human rights, including freedom of expression. The UN Secretary General has even called it an « enemy » of humanity and a « poison »5. Guy Berger goes even further and highlights the responsibility of governments as they need to be “far more transparent with their statistics” and “allow the media to be free and independent” to maintain the “credibility » of public information. To find a cure, UNESCO recommends the systematic use of fact-checking to identify unreliable information. It also promotes the implementation of a legislative response by the various State members as well as the institutional mediation of content and practices on digital platforms. Finally, UNESCO is campaigning for a new technological standard: the search for a new ethics among artificial intelligence. Its mandate in Communication and Information makes it a pivotal element in the fight against the current and future infodemic. While pandemics are cyclical, the collective response must be long-term. Thus, the promotion (and protection) of quality journalism and widespread access to transparent information would be antidotes to falsehood. Berger wittily mentioned that their goal is not to create “ministries of truth”, referring to the famous 1984 novel written by George Orwell. Otherwise, it would compromise the “grey areas” in which the scientific debate and progress emerge. UNESCO also aims to build global resilience and recruit talents that can contribute to it. The institution therefore organised a hackathon, called « CodeTheCurve », to propose technological solutions to curb the infodemic. Its action is intended to be plural and global to encourage civil societies, public administrations, and international institutions to fight together to preserve the health of our democracies.
« The public space is torn between openness and protection, between universal and polemic relativism. Hence a feeling of wavering and hesitation (…) From the confrontation of these dividing lines will emerge over time what has been gained or lost. One thing is certain: the choices that will be made depend on the future of democracy and dictatorships, peace and war, and perhaps the evolution of our civilizations.” challenges François-Bernard Huyghe in the Observatoire (Dés)information & Géopolitique au temps du Covid-19 de l’IRIS.6
1 Trump’s false or misleading claims total 30,573 over 4 years – The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/24/trumps-false-or-misleading-claims-total-30573-over-four-years/.
2 https://plus.google.com/+UNESCO, The Pandemic and the Infodemic: Disinformation in the Modern Age, https://en.unesco.org/news/pandemic-and-infodemic-disinformation-modern-age , 1 septembre 2020.
3 Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy et Sinan Aral, « The spread of true and false news online », Science, 9 mars 2018, vol. 359, no 6380, p. 1146 1151.
4 Coronavirus et réseaux sociaux : premières réflexions stratégiques sur une « infodémie » :: Note de la FRS :: Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique :: FRS, https://www.frstrategie.org/publications/notes/coronavirus-reseaux-sociaux-premieres-reflexions-strategiques-sur-une-infodemie-2020.
5 Déclaration interrégionale sur l’infodémie dans le contexte du COVID-19, https://onu.delegfrance.org/Declaration-interregionale-sur-l-infodemie-dans-le-contexte-du-COVID-19.
6 Observatoire (Dés)information & Géopolitique au temps du Covid-19 – https://www.iris-france.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Dossier-Final-Obs-Désinfo-Covid-light.pdf