by Vaidhehi Veena Sanmugananthan, Junayd Hussain, and Sumiha Karunagaran
Graphic design by Michie (Xingyu) Wu
Picture this: you’re going about your day when you suddenly hear your phone go off. A shocking news notification about the number of people dying from vaccines draws you in. Alarmed, you forward the story to all your friends and family to warn them about this new revelation on vaccines. The next day, you are scrolling through your feed, and come across a well-known scientist debunking yesterday’s vaccine story you recently shared. However, by this point the falsified information has been spread to your network and there’s no way of taking it back.
This is the sad reality of how quickly misinformation travels today. Social media has made it very easy to spread news widely. According to a report published by the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University in 2020, 94% of Canadian adults sampled from over 1500 survey responses had at least one account on a social media platform.1 This highlights the dense online interconnectivity that exists among Canadian adults today. Despite its convenience, the above anecdote illustrates how social media can catalyze the spread of unsubstantiated facts and sensationalized news quickly. How can we regulate and stop this spread? More importantly, is it even possible to do so in such an interconnected digital environment? This article, and the accompanying Raw Talk Podcast episode #104, “Science on Social Media”, aims to explore this question with insights from media researchers and scientists that are active on social media.
Firstly, what is misinformation? Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that has been spread without intent to deceive others.2 Dr. Eric Merkley, an assistant professor in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Anna Blakney, an assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of British Columbia, shared their insights on this topic. Dr. Merkley spoke about how social media can accelerate the propagation of misinformation throughout the public: “Historically, when people viewed the news, they cared a lot about source credibility…but now, through social media algorithms, people can kind of ignore the brand and…look at who in their social network is sharing this information as an alternative signal of credibility…scholars call this a credibility cascade”. Dr. Merkley also notes that spread of misinformation can stem from prominent figures like politicians or celebrities: “If you’re going to share misinformation, especially if you’re an elite voice, you got to do your due diligence…whatever they do, propagates much more fully through the media ecosystem. With great power comes great responsibility”.
Current efforts to manage misinformation dissemination do exist within social media platforms and external organizations. For example, the Canadian Government runs initiatives that provide funding for creating workshops and learning materials that improve media literacy.3 Twitter launched a pilot initiative called Birdwatch that allows users to write notes about Tweets that could be misleading.4 Clearly, there are existing initiatives being run to tackle misinformation dissemination. However, misinformation remains a persistent problem in society. Are the current efforts at slowing this spread effective or are there still improvements to be made?
Given the complexity of this issue, the episode team decided to discuss their opinions on the idea of regulating misinformation on social media platforms. Junayd Hussain, a Science Writer on this episode, shared his insight on the topic of flagging potentially misinformed tweets on Twitter: “What these warnings are effective at is getting people to pause for a second, and to really think…about the implications of if they shared something that might be inaccurate or might be sort of harmful”. Jason Lo Hog Tian, a Show Host on the episode, addressed the concern of introducing biases through regulation implemented by social media platforms themselves: “We have to remember that…there are companies behind these platforms. And just like in traditional media, they can regulate however they like. So that introduces some bias potentially”. Regulation can be biased towards company interests and can affect what information is shared. The concern of censorship inevitably arises too, where opinions may be canceled to maintain harmony on platforms. Sumiha Karunagaran, a Content Creator on the episode, shared her concerns regarding censorship on social media: “I don’t know if anyone is truly capable of playing God…my biggest concern here is freedom of speech”. As Sumiha states, it is important to question whether any individual or organization is knowledgeable or objective enough to filter what people share online. With that being said, there are always limitations in exercising the principle of freedom of speech.5 Ultimately, we agreed that there needs to be a more effective way to prevent misinformation spread to those who are vulnerable.
What ways can we improve the current dilemma regarding effectively managing misinformation on social media? Both Dr. Merkley and Dr. Blakney suggest that partial accountability needs to be taken by the consumers and producers of information on social media. Dr. Merkley believes that communities should have more skepticism overall, when consuming this information. Simultaneously, source checking should be implemented more frequently by platforms to ensure information is accurately represented. Finally, scientists who conduct research that are often addressed in sensationalized news and social media, should find ways to improve how they share their scientific findings to lay audiences in a clearly understandable way. Science communicators like the STEAM Sisters (IG: @steam.sisters), are working towards promoting better science communication in the scientific community through their outreach and digital-social media presence. They stated: “communicating the process of science is a part of building trust with the general public…demystify to avoid mistrust”.
Rampant misinformation in social media can be complex to deal with. Tackling the issue of misinformation dissemination requires collective efforts by all parties involved; consumers and producers included. There may not be a clear solution in sight to stop misinformation dissemination completely, but there needs to be more cohesive efforts and accountability shared among different members of our society.
We would like to acknowledge the efforts and ideas of the rest of the episode #104 team: Jenna, Jason, and Dennis were Show Hosts on the episode. Sumi helped with the episode and article content. Jesse and Noor are our Co-Executive Producers.
To learn more about the impact of social media on misinformation and the dissemination of science on public platforms, we invite you to listen to episode #104 of Raw Talk Podcast, titled “Science on Social Media”. Also, check out our references for more information on the bolded topics, as well as some interesting resources the team has compiled in the episode’s show notes on the Raw Talk Podcast website.