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The Perils of an Infodemic


The Perils of an Infodemic

When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), cited that the world is fighting an infodemic as well as an epidemic, skepticism began to brew among people as to what information to retain, and what to discard. Many in the news media industry are beginning to experience the true impact of what fake news has brought to society. Communicate spoke with Jim Egan, CEO of BBC Global News, to understand how serious the situation is and what the BBC is doing to tackle it.

How serious is the situation around fake news today?

The fake news crisis has become very serious. Factual and authoritative coverage of information is being debased, as more and more people begin to value opinion over truth and objectivity, both of which lead to an erosion of trust in the news.  For us at the BBC, we see ourselves as having a role in calling out fake news and we continue to provide audiences with news that is impartial, accurate, and independent, as we have been doing for almost a century.

How did we get to this point of erosion of trust in media?

Fake news is usually created to cause mischief or financial gain. Many publishers have adopted a new business model, where the frequent churning out of articles with clickbait headlines, has become more important than the reliability or authoritativeness of the content within it. This is fuelled by the possibility of sharing on social media, allowing the further spread of fake news.

But putting all the blame on social media would be an oversimplification. Whilst it has definitely played a role in exacerbating the erosion of trust in media, fake news is also used as a political tool to destabilize democracies or manipulate populations, particularly when there are upcoming elections for example. Politicians have taken advantage of people’s polarised opinions by tapping into their discontent and presenting simple solutions – in the form of soundbites or slogans – to what are actually very complex problems. This has allowed for populist politics, chipping away at trust in traditional media sources.

How is the BBC fighting the infodemic now and in general?

We’re fortunate to have a well-resourced pool of journalists from around the world, to help paint a clearer picture of the global crisis, by contextualizing local stories for an international audience. It’s this kind of trusted, quality journalism that plays a crucial role in fighting fake news on a daily basis. In a COVID-19 era, where the risk of an infodemic is more prevalent, we’re making greater efforts to contextualize stories. For example, the role of the BBC Reality Check is to demystify and debunk claims, assertions, and popular myths by applying the best of journalistic principles and approaches – a critical service at the time of an international crisis.

Has the infodemic affected commercial opportunities?

In times of uncertainly, people turn to brands they can trust, like the BBC. Our online audiences, are up by more than 80% YOY, highlighting just how important news is in people’s lives in a COVID-19 era. But commercially, the story hasn’t been the same, as advertisers are pulling out campaigns and implementing blocklisting on keywords such as ‘Coronavirus’, to ensure that their adverts don’t appear next to news about these topics. 

Brands that target away from news contribute to the demise of serious-minded, quality journalism that serves the public, which in turn makes way for less trustworthy and potentially harmful publishers. A more targeted approach to blocklisting could help support quality news providers at a time when they are providing vital, life-saving information to millions of people around the globe.

An example of this life-saving information is our initiative, in collaboration with Euronews and CNN, to set aside combined advertising inventory worth up to US$50 million so that organizations such as the WHO, other UN agencies, and national health ministries can relay urgent public health information messages out to the public.

What do you foresee in the aftermath?

Through all this, I think audiences will realize that not all sources of information are the same.  Despite being able to get access to all kinds of information on social media, there are some sources that are more trustworthy than others. Whilst it’s important to recognize this during an international pandemic, it’s even more important to remember this during normal times. Whether it’s business, politics, or any other category that has an impact on our lives, audiences need to be more discriminating in the sources they trust because it actually makes a difference to the way economies and democracies operate.

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