When a virus goes viral: pros and cons to the coronavirus spread on social media



Tim Gouw/Unsplash, CC BY

Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology; Daniel Angus, Queensland University of Technology; Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology, and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

News and views about coronavirus has spread via social media in a way that no health emergency has done before.

Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok and Instagram have played critical roles in sharing news and information, but also in disseminating rumours and misinformation.

Getting the Message Out

Early on, snippets of information circulated on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, before state censors banned discussions. These posts already painted a grim picture, and Chinese users continue to play cat and mouse with the Internet police in order to share unfiltered information.

As the virus spread, so did the social media conversation. On Facebook and Twitter, discussions have often taken place ahead of official announcements: calls to cancel the Australian Formula One Grand Prix were trending on Twitter days before the official decision.

Similarly, user-generated public health explainers have circulated while official government agencies in many countries discuss campaign briefs with advertising agencies.

Many will have come across (and, hopefully, adopted) hand-washing advice set to the lyrics of someone’s favourite song:

Widespread circulation of graphs has also explained the importance of “flattening the curve” and social distancing.

Debunking myths

Social media have been instrumental in responding to COVID-19 myths and misinformation. Journalists, public health experts, and users have combined to provide corrections to dangerous misinformation shared in US President Donald Trump’s press conferences:

Other posts have highlighted potentially deadly assumptions in the UK government’s herd immunity approach to the crisis:

Users have also pointed out inconsistencies in the Australian cabinet’s response to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s coronavirus diagnosis.

The circulation of such content through social media is so effective because we tend to pay more attention to information we receive through our networks of social contacts.

Similarly, professional health communicators like Dr Norman Swan have been playing an important role in answering questions and amplifying public health messages, while others have set up resources to keep the public informed on confirmed cases:

Even just seeing our leaders’ poor hygienic practices ridiculed might lead us to take better care ourselves:

Some politicians, like Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, blandly dismiss social media channels as a crucial source of crisis information, despite more than a decade’s research showing their importance.

This is deeply unhelpful: they should be embracing social media channels as they seek to disseminate urgent public health advice.

Stoking fear

The downside of all that user-driven sharing is that it can lead to mass panics and irrational behaviour – as we have seen with the panic-buying of toiletpaper and other essentials.

The panic spiral spins even faster when social media trends are amplified by mainstream media reporting, and vice versa: even only a handful of widely shared images of empty shelves in supermarkets might lead consumers to buy what’s left, if media reporting makes the problem appear much larger than it really is.

News stories and tweets showing empty shelves are much more news- and share-worthy than fully stocked shelves: they’re exceptional. But a focus on these pictures distorts our perception of what is actually happening.

The promotion of such biased content by the news media then creates a higher “viral” potential, and such content gains much more public attention than it otherwise would.

Levels of fear and panic are already higher during times of crisis, of course. As a result, some of us – including journalists and media outlets – might also be willing to believe new information we would otherwise treat with more scepticism. This skews the public’s risk perception and makes us much more susceptible to misinformation.

A widely shared Twitter post showed how panic buying in (famously carnivorous) Glasgow had skipped the vegan food section:

Closer inspection revealed the photo originated from Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 (the dollar signs on the food prices are a giveaway).

This case also illustrates the ability of social media discussion to self-correct, though this can take time, and corrections may not travel as far as initial falsehoods. The potential for social media to stoke fears is measured by the difference in reach between the two.

The spread of true and false information is also directly affected by the platform architecture: the more public the conversations, the more likely it is that someone might encounter a falsehood and correct it.

In largely closed, private spaces like WhatsApp, or in closed groups or private profile discussions on Facebook, we might see falsehoods linger for considerably longer. A user’s willingness to correct misinformation can also be affected by their need to maintain good relationships within their community. People will often ignore misinformation shared by friends and family.

And unfortunately, the platforms’ own actions can also make things worse: this week, Facebook’s efforts to control “fake news” posts appeared to affect legitimate stories by mistake.

Rallying cries

Their ability to sustain communities is one of the great strengths of social media, especially as we are practising social distancing and even self-isolation. The internet still has a sense of humour which can help ease the ongoing tension and fear in our communities:

Younger generations are turning to newer social media platforms such as TikTok to share their experiences and craft pandemic memes. A key feature of TikTok is the uploading and repurposing of short music clips by platform users – music clip It’s Corona Time has been used in over 700,000 posts.

We have seen substantial self help efforts conducted via social media: school and university teachers who have been told to transition all of their teaching to online modes at very short notice, for example, have begun to share best-practice examples via the #AcademicTwitter hashtag.

The same is true for communities affected by event shutdowns and broader economic downturns, from freelancers to performing artists. Faced with bans on mass gatherings, some artists are finding ways to continue their work: providing access to 600 live concerts via digital concert halls or streaming concerts live on Twitter.

Such patterns are not new: we encountered them in our research as early as 2011, when social media users rallied together during natural disasters such as the Brisbane floods, Christchurch earthquakes, and Sendai tsunami to combat misinformation, amplify the messages of official emergency services organisations, and coordinate community activities.

Especially during crises, most people just want themselves and their community to be safe.The Conversation

Axel Bruns, Professor, Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology; Daniel Angus, Associate Professor in Digital Communication, Queensland University of Technology; Timothy Graham, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology, and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The coronavirus and Chinese social media: finger-pointing in the post-truth era


Haiqing Yu, RMIT University

As public health authorities in China and the world fight the novel coronavirus, they face two major communication obstacles: the eroding trust in the media, and misinformation on social media.

As cities, towns, villages and residential compounds have been shut down or implemented curfews, social media have played a central role in crisis communication.

Chinese social media platforms, from WeChat and Weibo, to QQ, Toutiao, Douyin, Zhihu and Tieba, are the lifeline for many isolated and scared people who have been housebound for over two weeks, relying on their mobile phones to access information, socialise, and order food.

A meme being shared on WeChat reads: ‘When the epidemic is over, men will understand why women suffer from postnatal depression after one-month confinement upon childbirth.’
Author provided

These platforms constitute the mainstream media in the war on the coronavirus.

I experienced the most extraordinary Chinese New Year with my parents in China and witnessed the power of Chinese social media, especially WeChat, in spreading and controlling information and misinformation.

China is not only waging a war against the coronavirus. It is engaged in a media war against misinformation and “rumour” (as termed by the Chinese authorities and social media platforms).

This banner being shared on WeChat reads: ‘Those who do not come clean when having a fever are class enemies hidden among the people.’
Author provided

Information about the virus suddenly increased from January 21, after the central government publicly acknowledged the outbreak the previous day and Zhong Nanshan, China’s leading respiratory expert and anti-SARS hero, declared on the state broadcaster CCTV the virus was transmissible from person to person.




Read more:
Coronavirus: how health and politics have always been inextricably linked in China


On WeChat, the Chinese all-in-one super app with over 1.15 billion monthly active users, there has been only one dominant topic: the coronavirus.

Rumour mongers and rumour busters

In Wired, Robert Dingwall wrote “fear, finger-pointing, and militaristic action against the virus are unproductive”, asking if it is time to adjust to a new normal of outbreaks.

To many Chinese, this new normal of fear and militaristic action is already real in everyday life.

Finger-pointing, however, can be precarious in the era of information control and post-truth.

One of many spoof Cultural Revolution posters being shared on social media to warn people of the consequence of not wearing masks.
Author provided

On WeChat and other popular social media platforms, information about the virus from official, semi-official, unofficial and personal sources is abundant in chat groups, “Moments”, WeChat official accounts, and newsfeeds (mostly from Tencent News and Toutiao).

Information includes personal accounts of life under lockdown, duanzi (jokes, parodies, humorous videos), heroism of volunteers, generosity of donations, quack remedies, scaremongering about deaths and price hikes, and the conspiracy theory of the US waging a biological war against China.

TikTok video (shared on WeChat) on the life of a man in isolation at home and his ‘social life’.

There is also veiled criticism of the government and government officials for mismanagement, bad decisions, despicable behaviours and lack of accountability.

At the same time, the official media and Tencent have stepped up their rumour-busting effort.

They regularly publish rumour-busting pieces. They mobilise the “50-cent army” (wumao) and volunteer wumao (ziganwu) as their truth ambassadors.

Tencent has taken on the responsibility to provide “transparent” communication. It opened a new function through its WeChat mini-program Health, providing real-time updates of the epidemic and comprehensive information – including fake news busting.

The government has told people to only post and forward information from official channels and warned of severe consequences for anyone found guilty of disseminating “rumours”, including permanently blocking WeChat groups, blocking social media accounts, and possible jail terms.

A warning to WeChat users not to spread fake news about the coronavirus.
Author provided

Chinese people, accustomed to having posts deleted, face increased peer pressure in their chat groups to comply with the heightened censorship regime. Amid the panic the general advice is: don’t repost anything.

They are asked to be savvy consumers, able to distinguish fake news, half-truths or rumours, and to trust only one source of truth: the official channels.

But the skills to detect and contain false content are becoming rarer and more difficult to obtain.

Coronavirus and the post-truth

We live in the post-truth era, where every “truth” is driven by subjective, elusive, self-confirming and emotional “facts”.




Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth


Any news source can take you in the wrong direction.

We have seen that in the eight doctors from Wuhan who transformed from being rumourmongers to whistleblowers and heroes within a month.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first to warn others of the “SARS-like” virus in December 2019, died from the novel coronavirus in the early hours of February 7 2020. There is an overwhelming sense of loss, mourning and unspoken indignation at his death in various WeChat groups.

WeChat users mourning the death of Dr Li Wenliang.
Author provided

In the face of this post-truth era, we must ask the questions: what is “rumour”, who defines “rumour”, and how does “rumour” occur in the first place?

Information overload is accompanied by information pollution. Detecting and contain false information on social media has been a technical, sociological and ideological challenge.

With a state-led campaign to “bust rumours” and “clean the web” in a controlled environment at a time of crisis, these questions are more urgent than ever.

As media scholar Yong Hu said in 2011, when “official lies outpace popular rumors” the government and its information control mechanism constitute the greatest obstruction of the truth.

On the one hand, the government has provided an environment conducive to the spread of rumours, and on the other it sternly lashes out against rumours, placing itself in the midst of an insoluble contradiction.

As the late Dr Li Wenliang said: “[To me] truth is more important than my case being redressed; a healthy society should not only allow one voice.”

A screenshot from WeChat quoting Dr Li Wenliang: ‘[To me] truth is more important than my case being redressed; a healthy society should not only allow one voice.’
Author provided

China can lock down its cities, but it cannot lock down rumours on social media.

In fact, the Chinese people are not worried about rumours. They are worried about where to find truth and voice facts: not one single source of truth, but multiple sources of facts that will save lives.The Conversation

Haiqing Yu, Associate Professor, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Does social media make us more or less lonely? Depends on how you use it



Research by Relationships Australia released in 2018 revealed one in six Australians experience emotional loneliness, which means they lack meaningful relationships in their lives.
SHUTTERSTOCK

Roger Patulny, University of Wollongong

Humans are more connected to each other than ever, thanks to smartphones, the web and social media. At the same time, loneliness is a huge and growing social problem.

Why is this so? Research shows social media use alone can’t cure loneliness – but it can be a tool to build and strengthen our genuine connections with others, which are important for a happy life.

To understand why this is the case, we need to understand more about loneliness, its harmful impact, and what this has to do with social media.

The scale of loneliness

There is great concern about a loneliness epidemic in Australia. In the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report, more than one-quarter of survey participants reported feeling lonely three or more days a week.

Studies have linked loneliness to early mortality, increased cardio-vascular disease, poor mental health and depression, suicide, and increased social and health care costs.

But how does this relate to social media?




Read more:
How to be a healthy user of social media


More and more Australians are becoming physically isolated. My previous research demonstrated that face-to-face contact in Australia is declining, and this is accompanied by a rise in technology-enabled communication.

Enter social media, which for many is serving as a replacement for physical connection. Social media influences nearly all relationships now.

Navigating the physical/digital interface

While there is evidence of more loneliness among heavy social media users, there is also evidence suggesting social media use decreases loneliness among highly social people.

How do we explain such apparent contradictions, wherein both the most and least lonely people are heavy social media users?

Research reveals social media is most effective in tackling loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships, or forge new meaningful connections. On the other hand, it is counterproductive if used as a substitute for real-life social interaction.

Thus, it is not social media itself, but the way we integrate it into our existing lives which impacts loneliness.

I wandered lonely in the cloud

While social media’s implications for loneliness can be positive, they can also be contradictory.

Tech-industry enthusiasts highlight social media’s benefits, such as how it offers easy, algorithimically-enhanced connection to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. But this argument often ignores the quality of these connections.

Psychologist Robert Weiss makes a distinction between “social loneliness” – a lack of contact with others – and “emotional loneliness”, which can persist regardless of how many “connections” you have, especially if they do not provide support, affirm identity and create feelings of belonging.




Read more:
A month at sea with no technology taught me how to steal my life back from my phone


Without close, physical connections, shallow virtual friendships can do little to alleviate emotional loneliness. And there is reason to think many online connections are just that.

Evidence from past literature has associated heavy social media use with increased loneliness. This may be because online spaces are often oriented to performance, status, exaggerating favourable qualities (such as by posting only “happy” content and likes), and frowning on expressions of loneliness.

On the other hand, social media plays a vital role in helping us stay connected with friends over long distances, and organise catch-ups. Video conferencing can facilitate “meetings” when physically meeting is impractical.

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram can be used to engage with new people who may turn into real friends later on. Similarly, sites like Meetup can help us find local groups of people whose interests and activities align with our own.

And while face-to-face contact remains the best way to help reduce loneliness, help can sometimes be found through online support groups.

Why so lonely?

There are several likely reasons for our great physical disconnection and loneliness.

We’ve replaced the 20th century idea of stable, permanent careers spanning decades with flexible employment and gig work. This prompts regular relocation for work, which results in disconnection from family and friends.

The way we build McMansions (large, multi-room houses) and sprawl our suburbs is often antisocial, with little thought given to developing vibrant, walkable social centres.




Read more:
Size does matter: Australia’s addiction to big houses is blowing the energy budget


Single-person households are expected to increase from about 2.1 million in 2011 to almost 3.4 million in 2036.

All of the above means the way we manage loneliness is changing.

In our book, my co-authors and I argue people manage their feelings differently than in the past. Living far from friends and family, isolated individuals often deal with negative emotions alone, through therapy, or through connecting online with whoever may be available.

Social media use is pervasive, so the least we can do is bend it in a way that facilitates our real-life need to belong.

It is a tool that should work for us, not the other way around. Perhaps, once we achieve this, we can expect to live in a world that is a bit less lonely.The Conversation

Roger Patulny, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As fires rage, we must use social media for long-term change, not just short-term fundraising



Comedian Celeste Barber’s fundraising efforts have gained monumental support. But we need to think of long-term engagement in climate action too.
Facebook

Emma Hutchison, The University of Queensland

With 26 fatalities, half a billion animals impacted and 10.7 million hectares of land burnt, Australia faces a record-breaking bushfire season.

Yet, amid the despondency, moving stories have emerged of phenomenal fundraising conducted through social media.

At the forefront is Australian comedian Celeste Barber, whose Facebook fundraiser has raised more than AUD$45 million – the largest amount in the platform’s history.

Presenting shocking visuals, sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have been monumental in communicating the severity of the fires.

But at a time when experts predict worsening climate conditions and longer fire seasons, short bursts of compassion and donations aren’t enough.

For truly effective action against current and future fires, we need to use social media to implement lasting transformations, to our attitudes, and our ability to address climate change.

Get out of your echo-chamber

Links between social media and public engagement are complex. Their combination can be helpful, as we’re witnessing, but doesn’t necessarily help solve problems requiring long-term attention.




Read more:
Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


Online spaces can cultivate polarising, and sometimes harmful, debate.

Past research indicates the presence of online echo chambers, and users’ tendency to seek interaction with others holding the same beliefs as them.

If you’re stuck in an echo chamber, Harvard Law School lecturer Erica Ariel Fox suggests breaking the mould by going out of your way to understand diverse opinions.

Before gearing up to disagree with others, she recommends acknowledging the contradictions and biases you yourself hold, and embracing the opposing sides of yourself.

In tough times, many start to assign blame – often with political or personal agendas.

In the crisis engulfing Australia, we’ve seen this with repeated accusations from conservatives claiming the Greens party have made fire hazard reduction more difficult.

In such conversations, larger injustices and the underlying political challenges are often forgotten. The structural conditions underpinning the crisis remain unchallenged.

Slow and steady

We need to rethink our approach to dealing with climate change, and its harmful effects.

First, we should acknowledge there is no quick way to resolve the issue, despite the immediacy of the threats it poses.

Political change is slow, and needs steady growth. This is particularly true for climate politics, an issue which challenges the social and economic structures we rely on.

Our values and aspirations must also change, and be reflected in our online conversations. Our dialogue should shift from blame to a culture of appreciation, and growing concern for the impact of climate degradation.

Users should continue to explore and learn online, but need to do so in an informed way.

Reading Facebook and Twitter content is fine, but this must be complemented with reliable news sources. Follow authorised user accounts providing fact-based articles and guidance.

Before you join an online debate, it’s important you can back your claims. This helps prevent the spread of misinformation online, which is unfortunately rampant.

A 2018 Reuters Institute report found people’s interaction (sharing, commenting and reacting) with false news from a small number of Facebook outlets “generated more or as many interactions as established news brands”.

Also, avoid regressive discussions with dead-ends. Social media algorithms dictate that the posts you engage with set the tone for future posts targeted at you, and more engagement with posts will make them more visible to other users too. Spend your time and effort wisely.

And lastly, the internet has made it easier than ever to contact political leaders, whether it’s tweeting at your prime minister, or reaching out to the relevant minister on Facebook.




Read more:
Listen to your people Scott Morrison: the bushfires demand a climate policy reboot


Tangible change-making

History has proven meaningful social and political progress requires sustained public awareness and engagement.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber started fundraising with a goal of $30,000.
Celeste Barber/Facebook

Consider Australia’s recent legislation on marriage equality, or the historical transformation of women’s rights.

These issues affect people constantly, but fixing them required debate over long periods.

We should draw on the awareness raised over the past weeks, and not let dialogue about the heightened threat of bushfires fizzle out.

We must not return to our practices of do-nothingism as soon as the immediate disaster subsides.

Although bushfire fundraisers have collected millions, a European Social Survey of 44,387 respondents from 23 countries found that – while most participants were worried about climate change – less than one-third were willing to pay higher taxes on fossil fuels.

If we want climate action, we must expect more from our governments but also from ourselves.

Social media should be used to consistently pressure government to take principled stances on key issues, not short-sighted policies geared towards the next election.

Opening the public’s eyes

There’s no denying social media has successfully driven home the extent of devastation caused by the fires.

A clip from Fire and Rescue NSW, viewed 7.8 million times on Twitter alone, gives audiences a view of what it’s like fighting on the frontlines.

Images of burnt, suffering animals and destroyed homes, resorts, farms and forests have signalled the horror of what has passed and what may come.

Social media can be a formidable source of inspiration and action. It’s expected to become even more pervasive in our lives, and this is why it must be used carefully.

While showings of solidarity are incredibly helpful, what happens in the coming weeks and months, after the fires pass, is what will matter most.The Conversation

Emma Hutchison, Associate Professor and ARC DECRA Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

6 things to ask yourself before you share a bushfire map on social media



NASA’s Worldview software gives you a satellite view of Earth right now, and can help track the spread of fires.
Nasa Worldview

Juan Pablo Guerschman, CSIRO

In recent days, many worrying bushfire maps have been circulating online, some appearing to suggest all of Australia is burning.

You might have seen this example, decried by some as misleading, prompting this Instagram post by its creator:

As he explained, the image isn’t a NASA photo. What a satellite actually “sees” is quite different.

I’ll explain how we use data collected by satellites to estimate how much of an area is burning, or has already been burnt, and what this information should look like once it’s mapped.




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Reflective images

When astronauts look out their window in space, this is what they see:

It’s similar to what you might see from an aeroplane window, but higher and covering a wider area.

As you read this, many unmanned satellites are orbiting and photographing Earth. These images are used to monitor fires in real-time. They fall into two categories: reflective and thermal.

Reflective images capture information in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum (in other words, what we can see). But they also capture information in wavelengths we can’t see, such as infrared wavelengths.

If we use only the visible wavelengths, we can render the image similar to what we might see with the naked eye from a satellite. We call these “true colour” images.

This is a true colour image of south-east Australia, taken on January 4th 2020 from the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite. Fire smoke is grey, clouds are white, forests are dark green, brown areas are dryland agricultural areas, and the ocean is blue.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/307pDDX

Note that the image doesn’t have political boundaries, as these aren’t physical features. To make satellite imagery useful for navigation, we overlay the map with location points.

The same image shown as true colour, with the relevant geographical features overlaid.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2TafEMH

From this, we can predict where the fires are by looking at the smoke. However, the fires themselves are not directly visible.

‘False colour’ images

Shortwave infrared bands are less sensitive to smoke and more sensitive to fire, which means they can tell us where fire is present.

Converting these wavelengths into visible colours produces what we call “false colour” images. For instance:

The same image, this time shown as false colour. Now, the fire smoke is partially transparent grey while the clouds aren’t. Red shows the active fires and brown shows where bushfires have recently burnt.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2NhzRfN

In this shortwave infrared image, we start to “see” under the smoke, and can identify active fires. We can also learn more about the areas that are already burnt.

Thermal and hotspots

As their name suggests, thermal images measure how hot or cold everything in the frame is. Active fires are detected as “hotspots” and mapped as points on the surface.

While reflective imagery is only useful when obtained by a satellite during daytime, thermal hotspots can be measured at night – doubling our capacity to observe active fires.

The same image shown as false color, with hotspots overlaid in red.
NASA Worldview / https://go.nasa.gov/2rZNIj9

This information can be used to create maps showing the aggregation of hotspots over several days, weeks or months.

Geoscience Australia’s Digital Earth hotspots service shows hotspots across the continent in the last 72 hours. It’s worth reading the “about” section to learn the limitations or potential for error in the map.




Read more:
Spread the word: the value of local information in disaster response


When hotspots, which show “hot” pixels, are shown as extremely big icons, or are collected over long periods, the results can be deceiving. They can indicate a much larger area to be under fire than what is really burning.

For example, it would be wrong to believe all the areas in red in the map below are burning or have already burnt. It’s also unclear over what period of time the hotspots were aggregated.

The ‘world map of fire hotspots’ from the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Environmental Investigation Agency / https://eia-international.org/news/watching-the-world-burn-fires-threaten-the-worlds-tropical-forests-and-millions-of-people/

Get smart

Considering all of the above, there are some key questions you can ask to gauge the authenticity of a bushfire map. These are:

  • Where does this map come from, and who produced it?

  • is this a single satellite image, or one using hotspots overlaid on a map?

  • what are the colours representing?

  • do I know when this was taken?

  • if this map depicts hotspots, over what period of time were they collected? A day, a whole year?

  • is the size of the hotspots representative of the area that is actually burning?

So, the next time you see a bushfire map, think twice before pressing the share button.The Conversation

Juan Pablo Guerschman, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.

The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.

Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.

We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving “suspiciously”, compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.

Bots, trolls and trollbots

The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different “master narrative”.

Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter’s early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.

Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.

Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.

We’ve observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.

First, we used sophisticated software tools including tweetbotornot, Botometer, and Bot Sentinel.

There are various definitions for the word “bot” or “troll”. Bot Sentinel says:

Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.

Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.

These machine learning tools compared the behaviour of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a “score” for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.

We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.

Who to blame?

Unfortunately, we don’t know who is behind these accounts, as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information.

This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between December 31 last year and January 8 this year:

On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On January 7, there were 4726 tweets.
Author provided

Previous bot and troll campaigns have been thought to be the work of foreign interference, such as Russian trolls, or PR firms hired to distract and manipulate voters.

The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia’s bushfire debate.




Read more:
Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season


Weeding-out inauthentic behaviour

In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.

Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.

We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts.
Author provided

The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.

A much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.

On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.

The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them.
author provided

Bad publicity

Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.

Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis – and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.

What’s clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.




Read more:
Watching our politicians fumble through the bushfire crisis, I’m overwhelmed by déjà vu


Keep your eyes peeled

It’s difficult to debunk disinformation, as it often contains a grain of truth. In many cases, it leverages people’s previously held beliefs and biases.

Humans are particularly vulnerable to disinformation in times of emergency, or when addressing contentious issues like climate change.

Online users, especially journalists, need to stay on their toes.

The accounts we come across on social media may not represent genuine citizens and their concerns. A trending hashtag may be trying to mislead the public.

Right now, it’s more important than ever for us to prioritise factual news from reliable sources – and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth’s future could depend on it.The Conversation

Timothy Graham, Senior lecturer, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is social media damaging to children and teens? We asked five experts



They need to have it to fit in, but social media is probably doing teens more harm than good.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Alexandra Hansen, The Conversation

If you have kids, chances are you’ve worried about their presence on social media.

Who are they talking to? What are they posting? Are they being bullied? Do they spend too much time on it? Do they realise their friends’ lives aren’t as good as they look on Instagram?

We asked five experts if social media is damaging to children and teens.

Four out of five experts said yes

The four experts who ultimately found social media is damaging said so for its negative effects on mental health, disturbances to sleep, cyberbullying, comparing themselves with others, privacy concerns, and body image.

However, they also conceded it can have positive effects in connecting young people with others, and living without it might even be more ostracising.

The dissident voice said it’s not social media itself that’s damaging, but how it’s used.

Here are their detailed responses:


If you have a “yes or no” health question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: alexandra.hansen@theconversation.edu.au


Karyn Healy is a researcher affiliated with the Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland and a psychologist working with schools and families to address bullying. Karyn is co-author of a family intervention for children bullied at school. Karyn is a member of the Queensland Anti-Cyberbullying Committee, but not a spokesperson for this committee; this article presents only her own professional views.The Conversation

Alexandra Hansen, Chief of Staff, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Twitter is banning political ads – but the real battle for democracy is with Facebook and Google



Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, but the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google.
Shutterstock

Johan Lidberg, Monash University

Finally, some good news from the weirdo-sphere that is social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that, effective November 22, the microblogging platform will ban all political advertising – globally.

This is a momentous move by Twitter. It comes when Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg are under increasing pressure to deal with the amount of mis- and disinformation published via paid political advertising on Facebook.

Zuckerberg recently told a congress hearing Facebook had no plans of fact-checking political ads, and he did not answer a direct question from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if Facebook would take down political ads found to be untrue. Not a good look.

A few days after Zuckerberg’s train wreck appearance before the congress committee, Twitter announced its move.




Read more:
Merchants of misinformation are all over the internet. But the real problem lies with us


While Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google. So, until the two giants change, Twitter’s political ad ban will have little effect on elections around the globe.

A symptom of the democratic flu

It’s important to call out Google on political advertising. The company often manages to fly under the radar on this issue, hiding behind Facebook, which takes most of the flack.

The global social media platforms are injecting poison into liberal democratic systems around the globe. The misinformation and outright lies they allow to be published on their platforms is partly responsible for the increasingly bitter deep partisan divides between different sides of politics in most mature liberal democracies.

Add to this the micro targeting of voters illustrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a picture emerges of long-standing democratic systems under extreme stress. This is clearly exemplified by the UK parliament’s paralysis over Brexit and the canyon-deep political divides in the US.




Read more:
Why you should talk to your children about Cambridge Analytica


Banning political advertising only deals with a symptom of the democratic flu the platforms are causing. The root cause of the flu is the fact social media platforms are no longer only platforms – they are publishers.

Until they acknowledge this and agree to adhere to the legal and ethical frameworks connected with publishing, our democracies will not recover.

Not platforms, but publishers

Being a publisher is complex and much more expensive than being a platform. You have to hire editorial staff (unless you can create algorithms advanced enough to do editorial tasks) to fact-check, edit and curate content. And you have to become a good corporate citizen, accepting you have social responsibilities.

Convincing the platforms to accept their publisher role is the most long-term and sustainable way of dealing with the current toxic content issue.

Accepting publisher status could be a win-win, where the social media companies rebuild trust with the public and governments by acting ethcially and socially responsibly, stopping the poisoning of our democracies.

Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook users being able to publish lies and misinformation is a free speech issue. It is not. Free speech is a privilege as well as a right and, like all privileges, it comes with responsibilities and limitations.

Examples of limitations are defamation laws and racial vilification and discrimination laws. And that’s just the legal framework. The strong ethical frame work that applies to publishing should be added to this.

Ownership concentration like never before

Then, there’s the global social media oligopoly issue. Never before in recorded human history have we seen any industry achieve a level of ownership concentration displayed by the social media companies. This is why this issue is so deeply serious. It’s global, it reaches billions and the money and profits involved is staggering.




Read more:
The fightback against Facebook is getting stronger


Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, got it absolutely right when he in his New York Times article pointed out the Federal Trade Commission – the US equivalent to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – got it wrong when they allowed Facebook to buy Instagram and WhatsApp.

Hughes wants Facebook broken up and points to the attempts from parts of US civil society moving in this direction. He writes:

This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Yesterday, I posted on my Facebook timeline for the first time since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. I made the point that after Twitter’s announcement, the ball is now squarely in Facebook’s and Google’s courts.

For research and professional reasons, I cannot delete my Facebook account. But I can pledge to not be an active Facebook user until the company grows up and shoulders its social responsibility as an ethical publisher that enhances our democracies instead of undermining them.The Conversation

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anti-vaccination mothers have outsized voice on social media – pro-vaccination parents could make a difference


Vaccinations are important to protect against a host of diseases.
www.shutterstock.com

Brooke W. McKeever, University of South Carolina and Robert McKeever, University of South Carolina

A high school student from Ohio made national headlines recently by getting inoculated despite his family’s anti-vaccination beliefs.

Ethan Lindenberger, 18, who never had been vaccinated, had begun to question his parents’ decision not to immunize him. He went online to research and ask questions, posting to Reddit, a social discussion website, about how to be vaccinated. His online quest went viral.

In March 2019, he was invited to testify before a U.S. Senate Committee hearing on vaccines and preventable disease outbreaks. In his testimony, he said that his mother’s refusal to vaccinate him was informed partly by her online research and the misinformation about vaccines she found on the web.

Lindenberger’s mother is hardly alone. Public health experts have blamed online anti-vaccination discussions in part for New York’s worst measles outbreak in 30 years. Anti-vaccine activists also have been cited for the growth of anti-vaccination sentiments in the U.S. and abroad.

We are associate professors who study health communication. We are also parents who read online vaccination-related posts, and we decided to conduct research to better understand people’s communication behaviors related to childhood vaccinations. Our research examined the voices most central to this discussion online, mothers, and our findings show that those who oppose vaccinations communicate most about this issue.

What prompts mothers to speak out

A strong majority of parents in the U.S. support vaccinations, yet at the same time, anti-vaccination rates in the U.S. and globally are rising. The World Health Organization identified the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines as one of 10 top threats to global health in 2019.

Mothers are critical decision-makers in determining whether their children should be vaccinated. In our study, we surveyed 455 mothers online to determine who communicates most about vaccinations and why.

In general, previous research has shown that people evaluate opinion climates – what the majority opinion seems to say – before expressing their own ideas about issues. This is true particularly on controversial subjects such as affirmative action, abortion or immigration. If an individual perceives their opinion to be unpopular, they may be less likely to say what they think, especially if an issue receives a lot of media attention, a phenomenon known as the spiral of silence.

If individuals, however, have strong beliefs about an issue, they may express their opinions whether they are commonly held or minority perspectives. These views can dominate conversations as others online find support for their views and join in.

Our recent study found that mothers who contributed information online shared several perspectives. Mothers who didn’t strongly support childhood vaccinations were more likely to seek, pay attention to, forward information and speak out about the issue – compared to those who do support childhood vaccinations.

Those who believed that vaccinations were an important issue (whether they were for or against them) were more likely to express an opinion. And those who opposed vaccinations were more likely to post their beliefs online.

Ethan Lindenberger testifies before a congressional committee about his decision to be vaccinated against his family’s wishes.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

How social media skews facts

Online news content can be influenced by social media information that millions of people read, and it can amplify minority opinions and health myths. For example, Twitter and Reddit posts related to the vaccine-autism myth can drive news coverage.

Those who expressed online opinions about vaccinations also drove news coverage. Other research we co-authored shows that posts related to the vaccine-autism myth were followed by online news stories related to tweets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

Recent reports about social media sites, such as Facebook, trying to interrupt false health information from spreading can help correct public misinformation. However, it is unclear what types of communication will counter misinformation and myths that are repeated and reinforced online.

Countering skepticism

Our work suggests that those who agree with the scientific facts about vaccination may not feel the need to pay attention to this issue or voice their opinions online. They likely already have made up their minds and vaccinated their children.

But from a health communication perspective, it is important that parents who support vaccination voice their opinions and experiences, particularly in online environments.

Studies show that how much parents trust or distrust doctors, scientists or the government influences where they land in the vaccination debate. Perspectives of other parents also provide a convincing narrative to understand the risks and benefits of vaccination.

Scientific facts and messaging about vaccines, such as information from organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are important in the immunization debate.

But research demonstrates that social consensus, informed in part by peers and other parents, is also an effective element in conversations that shape decisions.

If mothers or parents who oppose or question vaccinations continue to communicate, while those who support vaccinations remain silent, a false consensus may grow. This could result in more parents believing that a reluctance to vaccinate children is the norm – not the exception.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

Brooke W. McKeever, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina and Robert McKeever, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.