We need to look beyond social media to tackle the scourge of disinformation

Blaming social media ignores the importance of untrue or misleading information spread by political actors or traditional media

Disinformation is widely perceived as a great threat to liberal democracies. Commentators blame it for contributing to Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, denial of the climate crisis and the anti-vaccination movement.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed yet another spotlight on the spread of false or misleading information. This might be disinformation when spread deliberately or misinformation when spread unintentionally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared early on that an “infodemic” was occurring alongside Covid-19. For example, according to Tehran, an estimated 700 Iranians died of methanol poisoning because of claims it could cure the virus.

However, discussion of the “infodemic” has given a further lease of life to oversimplistic ways of thinking about the problem. Ordinarily, it is difficult to prove what effect one message has among many. But Covid-19 has provided clearer evidence of how misinformation affects behaviour.

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