The theme for Safer Internet Day this year is ‘An internet we trust: exploring reliability in the online world‘. It is particularly relevant this year given the issues with conspiracy theories, 5G phone masts and anti-vaccine rhetoric as well as a growth in extremist mis/disinformation during the pandemic.
False information, whether intentional or not, has the potential to impact individuals and society in a number of ways. It can lead people to make unsafe health choices, it can cause anxiety which impacts mental health, it can cause divisions in society, undermine democracy or confidence in scientific research and it can lead to financial losses.
It is important that both children and adults are aware of the existence of false information online and that we all have the skills to “fact check” as well as a sufficiently questioning mindset to know when we should stop and delve a little deeper before we believe or share. An Ofcom survey of 12-15 year olds in Nov/Dec 2020 revealed that 62% found it hard to know what was true and what was false about the coronavirus, up from 52% in a similar survey in April 2020. It’s not always easy to tell whether something is fact or opinion, based on reliable research, or whether statistics have been used misleadingly or images have been altered or used in a different context.
One of the tools at our disposal for coronavirus information is the FullFact website. It contains a useful list of facts as well as the opportunity to ask for facts to be checked. It also offers advice on what to be aware of when considering the reliability of online information. This includes suggestions of reliable sources and advice on using Google tools to check where an image is from and whether it has been used before. It also includes a warning to beware of reports that attempt to manipulate our feelings.
Dramatic headlines and emotive images or stories are some of the techniques used to encourage us to click, share or engage with online content. At times of heightened uncertainty and worry, we can be particularly susceptible to this tactic. So, when we see news that seems extreme, emotional, one-sided, lacking in strong evidence or without a reputable, named source, we really need to stop and think. We should question the motives of those spreading it and take the time to check alternative views and sources, particularly reliable ones such as FullFact, gov.uk, NHS, World Health Organisation or mainstream news sources.
Younger people tend not to use traditional news outlets as much as older generations. Ofcom reported in 2020 that “45% of UK adults consume news via social media, either directly on the platform or after being redirected to a website from a social media service. Facebook is the leading source of this in the UK, as it is used by 76% of those who consume news via social media”. One of the risks of disinformation on social media is that it is easily created, quickly spread and difficult to remove once it has spread. In addition, the algorithms that feed us content that we like, or content that our friends have liked, can create a filter bubble that only shows us opinions that we already support and less of any opposing views. This can lead us to spread false information more readily.
Many social media companies are taking steps to address the problem of fake news on their platforms, but it is a challenging task with no easy solution. It is still up to all of us to be aware, to take care about what we share and to help children develop the skills to do the same.