31 March 2020 Thought Leadership
By Gavin Williamson, Associate at Lanyon Group
As the whirlwind of news, advice and trends relating to COVID-19 started swamping our airwaves, phones and online media, the question of trust in the news as the source of our information began to emerge.
The media and government are meant to keep us informed and advising the public on how to stay safe. But do we – the public – trust they are providing us with the right information and at the right time?
A wheel that keeps on turning, the media – just like the incredible work of the NHS, the PHA, the HSE and other key workers across multiple sectors – is doing what it can to help people in what is just the start of a seemingly relentless biological attack.
Sources such as the BBC, RTE or other regional news outlets are maintaining a sense of ‘trustworthiness’, something that is indispensable for sharing accurate and timely information. And whether it be traditional media outlets such as television or newspapers, or new platforms allowing journalism to amplify its voice, reporters, editors, production teams, and camera crews have been steadfast in their ability to bring the public the latest and most accurate information available.
Brexit aside, when was the last time one story completely dominated every news outlet? Health? Naturally. Education? Yes. Politics? Of course. Sport? There is none, so yes. Tech? Yes. Business, entertainment, even obituaries. Yes, yes, yes. COVID-19 has, and will continue to have, a clean sweep of coverage across every platform.
There has undoubtedly been an increased reliance on information communicated via the media by the NHS, PHA and other relevant authorities. NHS, PHA and other relevant expert sources. And with such credible and clearly-referenced sources, this will have done the media a favour in terms of levels of consumer trust.
Perhaps one of the most important bodies that is helping maintain this sense of trustworthiness is the Trusted News Initiative. Comprising some of the world's most prolific news and technology organisations, they will work hand-in-hand to rapidly identify and stop the spread of misinformation. Partners involved include: BBC, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, Microsoft, AFP, Reuters, European Broadcasting Union, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Hindu, CBC/Radio-Canada, First Draft, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Certainly a robust list. The cohort has now implemented a shared alert system which will help in its efforts to combat harmful news.
Recent research from Kantar (COVID-19 Barometer) indicates that in countries ‘more’ affected by the pandemic, their media consumption has increased across all in-home media channels. For example, web browsing has increased by 70%, followed by an increase of 63% in television viewing and social media engagement increasing by 61%.
WhatsApp is the social media platform of choice, with the popular app seeing a 40% increase in usage. Unsurprising given how simple it is for even the most tech adverse family members to keep in touch.
Kantar’s research also highlights there has been the greatest increase of use (40%) of social media platforms across the 18-34 age category. It would be interesting, though, to determine this age category is receiving their factual COVID-19 news we referred to earlier. With the majority now at home, are they watching more television, hence more news? Or are they still getting news from other sources? Once again, this brings us back to a vicious circle of news sources vs. accuracy of information.
Kantar also indicates that 52% of people identify traditional media outlets as trustworthy sources of information, with only 48% believing the government is providing sufficient assurances and security during the pandemic.
Interestingly, Kantar notes that social media platforms are regarded as being trustworthy sources of information by only 11% of consumers.
Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer UK makes some key findings:
With statistics like these, why is so much misinformation being spread?
The World Health Organization has called the spread of inaccurate information about coronavirus an “infodemic”, saying falsehoods were “spreading faster than the virus”. That in itself is rightly a cause for concern.
Politico has undertaken research highlighting how quick and easy it can be to disappear down a rabbit hole of misinformation. At the start of March, it joined over 30 invite-only Facebook groups such as ‘Coronavirus Updates’. Some of them have tens of thousands of members. It found that misinformation was spread throughout these groups and didn’t take long to find examples of fake news being spread.
Efforts from companies such as Facebook and Google to use artificial intelligence to remove harmful and inaccurate information work to a degree, but can only stem the tide and are seemingly unable to hold back the crashing waves of misinformation. As indicated by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, “misinformation about cures or treatments for coronavirus continue to circulate widely on Twitter and Facebook, often amplified by politicians and news media, and has contributed to fatal offline incidents”.
As part of its response to tackling fake news, the UK government is holding regular press conferences and has relaunched a campaign telling the public to think about what they are sharing on social media channels. It has also deployed a digital rapid response unit to combat fake news and has developed its own coronavirus information service on WhatsApp.
The free service “aims to provide official, trustworthy and timely information and advice”, something which will “help combat the spread of coronavirus misinformation in the UK, as well as helping ensure people stay home, protect the NHS and save lives”.
The WhatsApp system could certainly prove to be a helpful myth-buster, but at this stage it is still very much a one-way system, with users having to request the information as opposed to the information being relayed directly to them.
The government’s press conferences are increasing television numbers, with the Prime Minister’s broadcast on 20 March attracting over 27 million viewers – the biggest UK television audience since the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony. However, it remains to be seen whether figures such as this can be sustained or go through peaks and troughs depending on what is being announced.
When fake news is identified online, the rapid response unit liaises with the appropriate government department to fight the messaging if it can’t be removed. The government may directly refute the comment or ensure campaigns are promoted through reliable and accurate sources. The HSE has done something similar, stating: “When we become aware of fake news that causes distress to our staff and families, we must act.”
The old Russian proverb sums it up well. Trust is important, but blind trust can leave you open to abuse. That’s why it’s important to verify information and its sources.
We have so many trusted sources of information, supported by journalists and media outlets with integrity, that it beggars belief why people would look elsewhere for facts.
Even Reagan took the proverb to heart, quoting it on numerous occasions in the late 1980s. Perhaps it’s time for more people to do the same and verify what they hear.
Doing so could help make this pandemic a bit more manageable.
Note: Any figures noted may likely have changed taking into account the publication dates of research, the change in communications strategies and the ever-changing status of coronavirus, meaning any claims made may be invalid.
Gavin Williamson, Lanyon