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Online resource portal on problematic information

On this portal you will find a number of resources for understanding the dynamics of problematic online reporting. These resources are part of the work we did together with journalists and civil society organisations throughout 2021 with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.

To begin with, a conceptual clarification. Although we often refer to problematic information as 'disinformation' or 'fake news', there are several types of problematic information, which can be more or less harmful depending on their content and the motivations behind their production and amplification.

Diagram explaining the types of problematic information. When content contains false or inaccurate information but is not intended to do harm, it is misinformation. When the content is true but contains information that is intended to do harm, it is called malinformation. When there is a combination of the two, it is disinformation: false or misleading content that has the intent and potential to do harm. Sources: Disinformation as Political Communication; Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making

But what are these motivations? The video below focuses on the motivations behind the production of disinformation - fundamental to understanding this phenomenon - and the challenges of fact-checking as a strategy to combat it. Indeed, while fact-checking is one of the most important tools we have to curb the circulation and amplification of disinformation, the incentives to produce and amplify problematic content online make it difficult for those seeking to counter it.

The limits of fact-checking

One of the biggest challenges for fact-checkers and, in general, for all actors seeking to reduce the reach of misinformation, is to ensure that it is not amplified by the media, which often has a large reach on social media. This video explains these amplification dynamics, from the darkest corners of the internet to the headlines.

Journalism and the amplification of misinformation

But the media are not the only actors involved in this phenomenon. In reality, problematic information is successful because it operates in a web in which various actors vie for the attention of users on social networks, and people in turn tend to consume and share it because it fulfils social, emotional and cognitive needs, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty such as the pandemic. 

These are the actors operating in the network:

And here are some of the incentives to consume disinformation

This dynamic of production, circulation and consumption is well illustrated by what happened in relation to Covid-19 vaccines during 2020 and 2021. Despite continued efforts by governments and organisations such as the WHO to convince people to get vaccinated, in many countries these efforts were thwarted by misinformation. Here we explain how the pyramid of amplification of these anti-vaccine discourses worked in the United States.

Pyramid of vaccine misinformation in the United States. Adapted from: The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers

So what can journalists and the media - central actors, as we have seen - do to avoid amplifying problematic information? Here are some tips that can help when covering it.

Sources: 5 Lessons for Reporting in an Age of DisinformationHow journalists can avoid amplifying misinformation in their storiesHow to avoid amplifying disinformation | Vaccine Insights

In addition to these tips, it is always useful to monitor social media for problematic information and have benchmarks to determine whether problematic content has the potential to go viral and do more harm than it is doing. To do this, you can ask the following questions about the dynamics of digital debate. At the end you will find some open source tools for researching problematic information online to answer the guiding questions.

  1. Inquiring into the dynamics of amplification
  • Which accounts are amplifying the content? They are usually well-known figures or media accounts.
  • Is it possible to evidence automated behaviours in the accounts that are amplifying the message? For example, an unusual frequency of posting (such as several times per minute); the same post made multiple times, with the same hashtags, links or images.
  1. Recognise bubbles and their coordination
  • Is the content being shared on related accounts? For example, between communities of feminists, doctors or k-popers.
  • How many different accounts are talking about it on the platforms?
  1. Establishing a timeline
  • What are the most important milestones in the conversation or in the story?
  • Can the extent and peaks of digital activity be recognised?
  1. Create a keyword dictionary
  • What are the key words in the research topic? How are people using them?
  • Which search key can be used to combine or exclude certain words in the search results?
  1. Using open source tools for research
  • What data capture tools can be used to research content?
  • What characteristics, dynamics or information can be captured with each of the tools? How appropriate is it for what you want to investigate?

Here are three tools that work for digital research and are a good starting point for covering this content and understanding the dynamics of misinformation in the digital environment.

It is a tool for trend recognition on Twitter and mapping a content dissemination network on that social network. It also allows mapping the size of the conversation over the last seven days and identifying its peaks.

It allows an analysis of the media ecosystem, such as measuring the interest in a topic in different national and regional media. It also allows to identify peaks of interest in the topic and to make comparative searches.

  • Advanced Google and Twitter search

The Google search engine and Twitter offer powerful tools for finding information. With the help of Boolean operators and special operators, you can find specific data on the topic you are researching.

If you would like to explore this topic further, we recommend that you consult our guide on how to research problematic information online. There you will find detailed step-by-steps for each of the points covered in this portal and two case studies to better understand the dynamics explained in this portal.