How fast does a lie travel? Cordell Hull, the longest-serving US Secretary of State and “father of the United Nations,” thought he’d worked it out. “A lie will gallop halfway round the world,” he proclaimed in 1948, “before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.”
Hull shared his adage in a time before social media, before satellites and smartphones. There were no tweets. No Facebook posts. He couldn’t have known the rise of the internet and a worldwide pandemic would expose a critical flaw in his aphorism some 70 years later.
In 2020, a lie circles the world countless times before the truth has a chance to hit “Post.”
At no time has that been more obvious than during coronavirus pandemic. Since it emerged in December 2019, COVID-19 has infected 33 million people and killed more than 1 million. It’s also revealed significant failures in the way we consume and share information. At the center of this fight: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — the most popular digital platforms in the world. “There’s been this explosion of mis- and disinformation spreading via social media,” says Axel Bruns, a digital media researcher at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
On one front, we’ve battled a virus. On the other, we’ve battled misinformation.
Efforts by social media giants to manage the deluge of misinformation have largely fallen short. Coronavirus conspiracy theories infect every corner of the web, driven by frenzied Facebook posts and fatalistic tweets. YouTube has struggled to contain the spread of misleading videos about vaccination, microchips and Bill Gates. The science we rely on to inform the pandemic response has, at times, been distorted by rushed reporting. Incremental updates to public health information have muddied messaging across all of the biggest social networks.
We live in the Misinformation Age.
Misinformation is not a new problem. Some predicted the risk of viral misinformation long before COVID-19 emerged. But the biggest health crisis in a century has underscored the ease with which doubt can be sown online. “It’s an order of magnitude bigger than anything we’ve seen before,” Bruns says. Digital media researchers, psychologists and informatics specialists are beginning to grapple with the extent of our misinformation problem. With a presidential election looming in the US, there’s now a heightened sense of urgency. We must learn to slow down a lie.
During the pandemic, the pace of scientific research has accelerated dramatically.
As scientists were just starting to grapple with the severity of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, they began probing its genome for clues to where it originated and why it was so infectious. At the end of January, an alarming paper appeared online. A team of researchers suggested the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 showed similarities to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The study was a “preprint,” scientific literature that has not been peer-reviewed, posted to a server known as bioRxiv that houses preliminary research. Preprints don’t generally make a huge splash in the media or online. But shortly after being posted, it was shared by Eric Feigl-Ding, a Harvard public health researcher who became a prominent coronavirus commentator on Twitter. He tweeted the HIV study to around 60,000 followers, calling it “very intriguing.”
Except it wasn’t intriguing. It was junk. Feigl-Ding’s tweet and bioRxiv were flooded with comments pointing out the study’s flaws. Jason Weir, a biological scientist at the University of Toronto, said it only took “10 minutes to determine this was not serious science.” But the study hit social media just as discredited conspiracy theories about the virus being a “bioweapon” first appeared. The two stories became entangled. A brief panic ensued. A day after the study appeared, the authors withdrew it, but it remains the most downloaded preprint ever, with almost 1 million downloads…Read more>>