LONG READ: The alarming state of mis and disinformation across Facebook… and what the heck are Reach plc doing?

TLDR: We’re faring better than expected with COVID-19 disinformation but science’s message is losing in community groups… and what the hell are Reach plc titles playing at?

I’ve long said the battle against COVID-19 misinformation will be won or lost on Facebook so I decided to take a deep dive into that so you don’t have to.

Over three days I read 675 posts in community groups, public sector pages and news pages across the wider West Midlands.

It’s clear science says the path out of the pandemic is through inoculating at l;east 70 per cent of the population. But the path is a rocky one with Facebook scientists telling you otherwise.

As a country, we need to win the information war to reassure people that tests have been done on innoculations. In the summer, just 50 per cent said they’d have the jab. The absolute minimum to make it work is 70 per cent.

Bridging that gap is the key comms challenge of all our lifetimes.

Within that gap are two sets of people.

The first are those who have genuine concerns. I’m allergic to penicillin. Does this mean I’m safe to have it? I get that.

But there others, the anti-vaxxers who ignore the science and circulate debunked tropes arere dangerous. These ideas kill people.

But are they winning?

I’ve mapped the conspiracy to see what communicators can learn from the underlying trends.

Wading through almost posts and thousands of comments I saw plenty of frustration with lockdown, a wish for Christmas, some conspiracy and abuse but also plenty of togetherness, humour and help.

I looked at three areas.

Facebook pages run by the public sector, pages run by news titles and groups run by members of the public for communities where they live.

Each had a different tale to tell.

This is the sometimes alarming picture I found.

How much incorrect information is being seen? 29 per cent of people see inaccurate information in December 2020.

COVID-19 as a topic is not wall-to-wall

In the future, people will look back and wonder why every conversation was not about the virus.

Easy. In wartime, people want to talk about other things than the events at the front. The pandemic is news, of course news companies are going to be covering it.

More than a quarter of content posted to news site featured COVID-19 whether it was the latest infection rates, debate about tiers or people from the circulation area in the first round of of inoculations.

Less than a fifth of public sector posts were COVID-19. This reflects two things. Business as usual has returned in earnest and that there is less appetite for pandemic updates nine months in. That’s borne out by the community groups. A tenth of what people post about is about the virus. There are other things to talk about.

Fig 1. Percentage of COVID-19 content by Facebook channel

Misinformation and disinformation is rife in community groups

They may talk about it less in community Facebook groups but when they do this brings out the conspiracy theorists.

Misinformation is getting the wrong end of the stick. Disinformation is far more sinister. It’s the deliberate sewing of lies knowing they are lies.

I looked at 25 Facebook community groups with a combined audience of up to 261,000.

A total of 61 per cent of COVID-19 content attracted misinformation and disinformation – far more than public sector and news pages.

Fig 2. Percentage of COVID-19 content with disinformation or misinformation in the comments

If you’ve not been onto Facebook recently, hang onto your hats.

There is the idea that the Government is doing all this just to record people’s DNA…

Or, there is the story that originated in Australia that a can of Coke tested positive.

Or there is the QAnon conspiracies that all of this is the ‘great reset’ by the New World Order. People who trusts the scientists are ‘sheeple’ who don’t think for themselves.

It may be tempting to dismiss this sort of talk. But don’t forget that the US has elected QAnon conspiracy theorists.

But there are those who respond. Don’t think that theoriests have it all their own way.

Striking as I looked around community groups was the lack of public sector content being shared in them. Anti-vaxxers have all the best memes that are easily sharable.

Local stories for local people work

What does work in community groups is content with people from the area getting shots.

If anything is, this is the secret sauce in the battle.

Often this leads to local people recognising the people in the picture.

It’s brilliant to see.

News companies… especially Reach plc… are attracting misinformation and disinformation and appear not to act against it

As a former journalists, the way that news companies are handling the pandemic troubled me the most.

Of course media companies are going to be attracted to to COVID-19. It’s the story of the decade. But what was interesting was the comments they attract. Posting COVID-19 content attracts sceptics like a moth to a flame. But there is a marked difference between Reach plc titles and non-Reach titles.

Here, there is a striking disparity between how Reach plc police their comments and write their content and other news organisations.

Almost half Reach plc content attracted mis and disinformation – that’s twice as much as other news companies.

I have a lot of time for journalists working for Reach plc. I know several and as a company they have a firmer grasp of how to make online news work than many others. However, the data does not lie. I don’t want to go into the question as to whether this devisive approach is deliberate but I would challenge this company to do a better job at policing Facebook than they are.

Some of the comments on Reach’s Facebook pages are dangerously inaccurate.

All to often comments on Reach plc Facebook pages turn into a rancid free-for-all that can’t be good for the long-term trust and business of journalism.

Fig 3. Percentage of COVID-19 content with mis or disinformation by ownership

Public sector pages are mis and disinformation free

If there’s good news it’s that the conspiracy theorists are not on their pages. Or if they are their content doesn’t last long.

But if people’s only experience of the topic is pages then they’d be lulled into a false sense of security.

One alarming issue through the review was a lack of public sector content making its way into community groups. It is getting cut through in news pages but not in the community.

What public sector communicators can do about it

The failure to get public sector uinformation into Facebook groups is alarming. But without direct action this is unlikely to change. Group admins are as influential as as patch journalists. They are the new gatekeepers.

Good relations with Facebook admins are important but so is the ability to enlist the help of the community into sharing the message.

Staff, community leaders and members of the public who all signed up to help in the early days of COVID-19 need to come into play.

But a discussion with Reach plc editors is beyond time. Of course, people can debate topics. But when the information in the comments is dangerously inaccurate it makes a mockery of the noble ideals of journalism. This is a shame when there is some good work – Reach included – going on in the content.

Notes

Facebook media pages analysed: Birmingham Live, Black Country Live, Stoke-on-Trent Live, Burton Live and Coventry Live (all Reach plc) as well as Stourbridge News, Hereford Times, Worcester News, BBC Midlands and Express & Star.

Facebook groups Halesowen Times Take 2, Atherstone & District People’s Forum, Great Barr Neighbourhood Forum, Streetlifers of Stourbridge, Uttoxeter Community and Events, Kenilworth Vibes, Indians in Birmingham, Leek Community, I’m From Dudley, Blackheath / Rowley Page, Stoke-on-Trent Past and Present, Everything Moseley, Ross-on-Wye Noticeboard, Wolverhampton COVID-19 Mutual Aid, Spotted Tipton, BrownhillsBob, Friends of Stafford, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire Noticeboard, Bridgnorth Chat News Rants and Idle Speculation, Stratford Upon Avon Forum, Helping Hereford Through COVID-19 Bedworth Community Forum, Leek Awakes, Voice of Ledbury, Solihull, For the Love of Shrewsbury and Nuneaton Local.

Facebook pages held by the public sector included Dudley Council, Sandwell Council, NHS Birmingham & Solihull, Warwickshire County Council, East Staffordshire Borough Council, Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Combined Authority, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust, Herefordshire & Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, West Midlands Police, Hereford & Worcestershire Fire & Rescue and Warwickshire Police.

For the review on December 15 and 16 2020, the first 15 posts were analysed with comments.

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

  1. Hello Dan. Interesting as always, but a bit disappointing you don’t appear to have tried to get answers to the questions you pose about Reach. You do know where to find us!

    We certainly aren’t setting out to appeal to those who peddle misinformation, despite you suggesting it is a point up for debate. Indeed, we have firm guidance in place on vaccine coverage, carefully crafted by Marc Reeves on behalf of our senior editorial leaders.

    In terms of Facebook comments on our posts, this is an area we spend a lot of time talking about. We write our stories in ways which we know make them more shareable for readers – we believe that as well as writing stories which we know interest people, it’s really important we write stories which are in the public interest in ways which make them interesting to readers who aren’t necessarily looking for them. Journalism can only do its job if people are reading the journalism.

    The problem comes with the volume of comments under Facebook posts. This leaves us with a choice: Divert effort from actually writing stories, and providing factual information (such as on the vaccine) to police every comment thread under our posts on Facebook, or do what we can while ensuring we’re focusing on our most important role: gathering reliable, accurate news. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t be a choice – the world’s biggest social media platform could surely make this easier for us (indeed, we’ve deployed technology on our own sites this year which has allowed us to do much more with comments at a time when many in the industry are just switching comments off – which we don’t think is good for journalism either).

    We have spoken to Facebook about this, and even worked with other publishers to ask for more tech support here – eg the ability to pick and choose which stories we have comments on on Facebook, the sort of controls you can have when running a Facebook group. The answer has been a firm no.

    This leaves us with another choice: We could just stop posting articles on Facebook to remove the commenting challenge, or we can post articles and do what we can, within limited resources, to influence the conversation (conversations which would be taking place elsewhere – we aren’t provoking the debates, other than by writing well-researched journalism).

    Indeed, some of our newsrooms spotted posting Black Lives Matter stories on Facebook over the summer because of the level of vitriol coming back from some on Facebook – we don’t have the manpower to moderate such volumes, and some staff were having to deal with when looking at comments, was simply awful. Not posting important local journalism on the world’s largest social media platform limits the good it can do, and is something all the editors I know would prefer not to do.

    On balance, we feel we do more good by posting well-researched journalism on Facebook, in the knowledge that the vast majority of people are well-rounded human beings who value the content being provided and the context which is being presented, rather than not posting it on Facebook, thus limiting the positive benefit our journalism can have. In all likelihood similar conversations are taking place under our stories all over the internet, in places (including FB feeds) where we haven’t posted at all. To use the age old analogy of social media as a pub, it’s like expecting journalists to police debate about every conversation about their work which appeared in the paper when readers were debating it over a pint.

    Do we like it? Not particularly, but hopefully this context (freely available, if you’d asked!) explains what we’re trying to do.

    1. Hi David. Firstly, thank you for your considered and very detailed comment on this posted on a Saturday morning. Genuinely. I think Reach amongst all the local news companies is doing best at working out how to adapt to using the internet. I’ve blogged about the really good work that Reach has done down the years and I’ve been happy to do so. On those occasions, as with this, I’ve not approached anyone for a comment but I’ve left my blog comments open as I’ve done so here. I would have been entirely remiss not to have blogged this data and to the questions it poses about Reach plc and other news titles. Turning to the data, there is double the amount of dis and misinformation in Facebook comments in Reach titles than in non-Reach. Now, one response to this could be that this is a small sample and that it’s not scientific. I’d be the first person to put my hand up to accept that. But I do think that anyone – journalist or not – would be troubled by the canary in the mine that this snapshot poses. I can only speculate on the amount of time and effort needed to keep an eye on all channels. I get that. But the inescapable fact is that we’re in a pandemic and the worst of this misinformation breeds the ignorance that kills people. My concern is that the good work done by journalists – I can think of the Facebook Live Q&A with the Public Health official in Brum as an example – gets undermined by corrosive comments such as this is all a hoax or a ‘plandemic’ and other such discredited nonsense that appear on news profiles. This can’t be good for trust in journalism aside from trust in public health. But thank you for taking the time to comment.

      1. As you say, it’s a snapshot which suffers from a lack of context. Still think it’s odd that you chose to imply we are trying to provoke anti vaxxers, wrote a company into your headline as a question but never thought to go and find the answers to the questions posed, particularly when the subject is the spread of misinformation! It’s a very important issue, a solution for which will only be found through sensible debate rather than startling articles implying newsrooms are doing anything other than trying to keep people informed in a confusing time.

  2. No, David. You misunderstand what a blog and a news item is. What I’m doing is writing a blog post – with open comments – on the data that points out that disinformation and misinformation in Reach owned Facebook comments are DOUBLE those of other news companies. I hope that bothers you more than anything. In the middle of a pandemic misinformation is killing people. To ask what the heck Reach is doing in the light of that data is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and one I’m sure I’ll return to.

    1. I noticed that when the Liverpool Echo was under siege recently on its Facebook page from QAnon style campaigners for not covering a march in the city the comments suddenly petered out. I can only presume that is because they added in words to filter out the phrases being used by the people who were criticising them. Could they not do the same in this situation…’plandemic’, etc?
      Reach have also not helped by having their own coronavirus community page for many of their sites, which anyone who likes their page can start a debate on. I have seen many of these peddling nonsense theories or misunderstanding the data.
      I don’t see much evidence of Reach regulating the discussion on their social media pages, full stop. The language, abuse and quality of debate is dreadful.

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