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.
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.