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Takeaways from the 2020 Exploring Media Ecosystems Conference

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By Claudia Chen

From inaccurate self-diagnosing methods to false promises of a magical cure, COVID-19 mis- and disinformation grows daily and spreads rampantly, as people are desperate for the most up-to-date information about an ever-changing situation. The magnitude of pandemic-related mis- and disinformation has led to fact-checking sites like Snopes becoming overwhelmed with the quantity of requests. Large platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit released a joint statement discussing how they are “combating fraud and misinformation about the virus.”

This struggle to combat mis- and disinformation in global health was a focus of the 2020 Media Ecosystems Conference, hosted in March by the Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, the non-profit arm of the Media Cloud project based at the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. The two-day conference, which was hosted once before in 2018, brought together various researchers, journalists, academics, and other stakeholders in the current media landscape.

The first day of the conference discussed disinformation across platforms and across the world, while the second day had a specific focus about these topics in the context of global healthcare. Presentations included research about India, the Philippines, Malaysia, France, Italy, the US, Nigeria, and the MENA region, and researchers from institutions in France, Italy, the US, UK, India, Nigeria, Canada, Spain, and Germany took the stage. In addition, and in keeping with the ecosystems approach, the research presented covered a wide range of platforms (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Open Web, 4chan) and methodologies (from quantitative to qualitative, from interpretative to computer science approaches). These conversations are especially important in light of our current global situation, and this post highlights some of the great speakers and presentations made during the conference.

The conference opened with remarks from Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media. He discussed the purpose of the conference, posing a central question for the audience:”Can we build social media that is plural in purpose, public in spirit, and participatory in governance?”

This question was a good transition into the rest of the sessions on the conference’s first day, which focused on political mis- and disinformation. Session topics ranged from deepfakes and misinformation on WhatsApp in India all the way to the emergence of various narratives of disinformation on Greta Thunberg.

One talk in particular I really enjoyed was Alexei Abraham’s talk about the use of influencers in spreading pro-authoritarian discourse in the Middle East. His research at the Citizen Lab looked at trending hashtags to see if inauthentic or manufactured Tweets came from automated bot accounts or human-driven “influencer” accounts. His results challenge the narrative that bots are heavily used to spread pro-authoritarian discussion on Twitter. Instead, it provokes the hypothesis that members with heavy social media influence engage in a hierarchical space, where they are encouraged, incentivized, or potentially even coerced to guide public opinion. His talk resonated with me because it reminded me that constantly analyzing and questioning assumptions is central to researching the media landscape.

The second day of the conference opened with a keynote by Lisa Nakamura, a scholar of race and gender in internet studies. Her keynote focused on how empathy is commonly proposed as a solution to the racism and sexism that occurs on digital platforms, but this solution does not hold anyone accountable. Nakamura emphasized that while companies know how to create influential platforms, they don’t know how to be accountable for what occurs on them. The rest of the day of the day focused on mis- and disinformation in healthcare and their effects.

Jonathan Ong’s presentation, “How Racist Speech and Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory Evade Fact-Checkers and Platforms in the Philippines,” was particularly timely. His presentation focused on the rise of the anti-Chinese sentiment that emerged in the Philippines when President Rodrigo Duterte shifted the country’s foreign policy to ally with China. Ong spoke about how during Duterte’s re-election campaign, those politically opposed to Duterte would circulate anti-China extreme speech with paid trolls. And when Duterte was slow to impose travel bans on China as COVID-19 began to spread, influencers and those opposing him began circulating conspiracies about China and the origins of the virus. Ong discussed how circulation of these messages has led to racism against Chinese people in the Philippines, citing examples like ride-sharing drivers refusing service to Chinese customers.

Today, we see examples of racism emerging across the world based on harmful narratives about the origins of COVID-19. And while misinformation in public health is not a novel problem, its effects have been highlighted and exacerbated in today’s time. Just as healthcare workers and researchers are racing to develop vaccines and treatments, media researchers, scholars, and companies should be racing to develop better methods for researching, preventing, and correcting mis- and disinformation about global healthcare topics. When we consider issues like health misinformation in the time of a pandemic, we remember that these challenges in the media ecosystem cut across borders, platforms, and subject matter. By sharing our learnings about these topics on a global scale more frequently, and learning from media research in fields ranging from politics to healthcare, we can more effectively address and combat mis- and disinformation .

To learn more about this year’s Exploring Media Ecosystems Conference, visit this page.