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Training the next workforce to field dangerous claims

In the 1300s during the Black Plague, before scientists could diagnose the cause of the disease (a bacterium now called Yersinia pestis), religious cures, potions and bloodletting filled anxiety-inducing gaps in information that contemporary medical knowledge could not. Generations later, during the Spanish Flu, before its true biology was discovered, even many scientists believed wrongly that the disease came from the same bacterium that caused illnesses like anthrax, cholera, and plague. Today, in the throes of this pandemic, we see similar misinformation surrounding COVID-19 treatments, cures and preventions, all spreading across the internet before they’ve been verified or refuted by good science.

In each of these cases, the need or desire to know a truth outpaces the discovery of that truth (“How much should we be testing? How did the virus spread? What are the symptoms? What are the cures?”). So people make stuff up. They latch onto theories, maybe because bad information and hasty news is more comforting than no information at all. It’s a problem we might call “midinformation,”, or informational ambiguity based on scant or conflicting evidence, often about emerging scientific knowledge.

There is a growing global need for a generation of journalists who can help the public root through the noise of the internet and get to the bottom of the chaos. More than just a baseline need for journalism and high quality reporting (which is equally critical and proactive), the failures of governments, platforms and information leaders during COVID-19, coupled with the public’s growing skepticism of science, call for more of us to be able to spot midinformation and misinformation, discern its different manifestations, debunk claims online, and spread the message. We are hoping to address these challenges through Check U, a new vertical at Meedan that trains university students to spot and verify misleading information.

This is important now more than ever. Waning public trust in authorities, coupled with an evolving disease in which research and science changes daily, is predictably sowing confusion, and opening gaps for bad actors to manipulate online narratives. We’re seeing this virtually everywhere.

  • In the Philippines, top leaders spread misinformation about how to properly wear masks in public

  • In India, health misinformation is intertwined with existing divided narratives between Hindus and Muslims and people are confused by false information about ayurvedic “cures”

  • Governments around the world are not communicating health information in minority languages

  • In Tribal regions in the United States and Canada, government guidelines are widely out of touch with the reality of indigenous, community-centered living

The gaps are slightly different in every region, but the trend is observable across language, demographics and other divides: people are in need of high quality health information, not just because of the general and obvious importance of being able to discern what’s true from what’s false, but because knowing things about health leads to doing things about health. Literally. Knowing the ground truth about vaccine safety can lead to getting vaccinated. Knowing the public health benefits of mask wearing has been shown to contribute to people wearing masks. If your information is wrong, unrealistic, misleading, or inaccessible because of language or literacy, then the things you’ll do with that information (or lack thereof it) may be incorrect and unsafe. Conspiracy theories about vaccination lead people I know not only to not vaccinate, but to also spread those conspiracy theories so that others don’t vaccinate either.

Through Credibility Coalition, our joint program with Hacks/Hackers, we’re launching a Google News Initiative-supported series of Fall 2020 training programs in which students from Germany, Yemen, Syria, Cairo, the United States and other places learn critical debunking skills amid a century-defining pandemic. All together, we’ll be training more than 1,100 students from 14 universities. To this end, we’re doing the following:

  • Developing a syllabus with Syracuse University’s Jennifer Grygiel

  • Walking students through sourcing, screening, categorizing and debunking claims

  • Using Check, Meedan’s online verification tool, as a collaborative education platform on which to train and evaluate students

Today’s online environment exacerbates the spread of all forms of misleading content by amplifying false or understudied theories, leading to poor health outcomes worldwide. The internet’s decentralization of information, and ensuing decentralization of information authority triggers a big chunk of the spread of what’s now known as misinfodemics. It also calls for solutions that are as powerful and scaleable as the problem itself.

This is just the beginning of our efforts to educate professionals and students about responsible ways to debunk claims related to topics as critical as our own health and well-being. It builds off many years of Meedan experience in this realm, from our initial collaboration with the University of Hong Kong’s Cyber Verification Lab to UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center to our ONA Challenge Grant project with the University of Nevada Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism. These lessons have taught us that the act of fact-checking and verification is one of the best tools for learning about these processes, and we’re excited to formalize this at a new level.

● Related

The Checklist–read misinformation news from around the world

The Weekly Roundup

—open-source investigations, industry resources and event information