Although not always the originator of misinformation, social media communities are an amplifier for conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns — and they’re also victims of those lies. The misinformation surrounding COVID-19, vaccines, Black Lives Matter protests and other major news events have demonstrated that “fake news” in your Facebook feed and your Nextdoor group isn’t simply annoying — it literally might be dangerous.
Local news organizations are in prime position to help fight misinformation in their communities. Mahoning Matters in Ohio wanted to debunk a viral conspiracy about antifa groups looting the local Wal-Mart, so they actually went to the Wal-Mart and showed on Facebook Live that there was no antifa, no looting. “Instead of just reporting about this as a misinformation trend, we went out there and dispelled the rumors,” says former publisher Mandy Jenkins. “We can do that with every story. We’re local.”
Back in March 2020, when there was only one confirmed coronavirus case in Arizona, The Tucson Sentinel decided to jump proactively into a potential pit of conspiracies and lies: Facebook. “It’s important to challenge [misinformation] right where it happens,” says Dylan Smith, the Sentinel’s editor and publisher, so the Tucson Coronavirus Updates Facebook group was launched.
Quick intervention also was important. “I was aware that much bigger, more concerning things were coming,” says Smith. “I played a small role in the COVID Tracking Project from its early days, and it was apparent that our community wasn’t going to go without being hit by the disease” as well as by “conspiracist nonsense and politically motivated falsehoods.”
“The very first weeks of public discourse about the pandemic had already shown that it was going to be a bright light” that would attract those lies, he says. “In this case, lies were quite literally deadly, and we weren’t about to allow that.” The Sentinel team set up guidelines and rules for participating in its Facebook group, and designated administrators and monitors — comprised of volunteers from the community as well as Sentinel staff — to keep the conversations in check. “Too many newsrooms try to fix social media disasters after the train’s already run off the trestle and exploded on the rocks below,” says Smith. “That never works.”
Importantly, the Sentinel set a limit on participation in the Facebook group: Users must be local residents. “By restricting membership to those people who actually live in the Tucson area, we’ve eliminated a lot of drive-by trolls, and while we haven’t had to ban too many people or even mute them, we don’t hesitate if there’s someone who’s not there to participate in good faith,” says Smith.
Over a year later, with more than 9,400 subscribers, Smith attributes many of the thank-you notes, donations and newsletter subscriptions to the success of the Facebook group. “Right from the first couple of days, we had people guiding others to where they could be tested, people dropping off food for homebound and frightened seniors,” he says. “It’s an effort that we’re pretty proud of, and has played an important role in helping thousands of Tucsonans navigate the past year.”
Other promising efforts and ideas:
Some efforts have targeted communities where coronavirus information might be scarce and misinformation a threat. Reporters for Documented, a New York City publication that covers the city’s immigrant community, noticed that Spanish-language misinformation about the pandemic was different from misinformation spreading in English. They also found that undocumented people were particularly affected by fake claims and scams. After conducting research with target groups, Documented launched a WhatsApp newsletter sent directly to subscribers from a journalist on staff. “When they know that it’s a human being,” says Nicolás Rios, Documented’s audience editor, “you create trust.” (Tip: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a co-founder of Factcheck.org, has developed this new way to present fact-checks so that people remember them; and First Draft has new research on how to write about fake images without amplifying them.)
And in West Virginia, Black by God, a local startup for Black residents, recognized that the lack of trustworthy information in the community left it wide open for misinformation — an issue examined in a project supported by the Lenfest Institute and a study published by the Harvard Kennedy School in January. Journalist Crystal Good of Charleston, W.Va., launched the Black by God Substack newsletter and a website in part to help improve “political literacy” and the lack of access to COVID-19 data in diverse communities. “One of the hard parts is that people don’t understand the need for community journalism and/or Black journalism,” Good told the Columbia Journalism Review. “They don’t understand the information gap.”
Communications students at Boston University created a public health campaign, aimed at their fellow students, to help counteract misinformation about COVID-19. The student-led team used edgy, in-your-face messaging on campus posters, publications and on social platforms popular with their peers. “Although the university was already planning a campaign, students needed a voice they could trust,” says Michelle Amazeen, an associate professor at BU. “Generation Z is less likely to trust institutions and people in power, and more likely to trust their peers.” The campaign reached more than 2 million people, Amazeen says, and the CDC was briefed by the students on their efforts.
Here’s a look into the future: Scripps is working with the News Literacy Project, the National Association of Broadcasters and a technology company on a project to fight misinformation. The project will use NextGen TV technology to allow local TV stations to interact — live — with viewers, offering programs designed to teach skills in spotting misinformation, for example. Widespread use of the “news literacy TV app” might be years away, but local broadcasters got a glimpse at the possibilities at a virtual event in April. The Scripps effort is part of a larger partnership with the News Literacy Project, which has included the National News Literacy Week in January and literacy workshops for journalists, says Kari Wethington, a Scripps spokesperson.