Fake news and coronavirus: 7 rules for ‘digital hygiene’

Europe is wrestling with two massive problems: the infection itself, but also the cascades of economic and social panic that it causes.

18th March 2020

Carl Miller is the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos and author of The Death of the Gods; the New Global Power Grab. He recently took part in our Saving Europe From Itself podcast episode discussing how we can protect ourselves against the proliferation of fake news. Here we re-publish his comments as a blog on ‘digital hygiene’: how to stay informed and protected from ‘infodemics’.

Carl’s 7 Rules for Digital Hygiene

There’s only one thing that many of us have been able to think about over the last month. Yet Europe is really wrestling with two massive problems: the infection itself of course, but also the cascades of economic and social panic that it causes.

I’m no expert in COVID-19, but over the last ten years I have studied how information moves from person to person. All seismic events now have equally huge digital aftermaths which always, at the same moment, provide both amazing and terrible information about what’s going on.

NHS web traffic has surged. If you want to submerge yourself in data about Singaporean hospital submissions or maps of cases, you can. But we’re also seeing surges of misinformation. ‘Miracle cures’ involving honey, or garlic. Conspiracy theories that it’s all linked to 5G. A riot broke out in Ukraine after a fake email about evacuees went viral.

Much of this is organic and unwitting. Some of it is deliberately concocted, possibly by states that want to drive societies apart. The point here is that information is at its most dangerous when it is also at its most important. Epidemics and infodemics go hand in hand. It was the same for Ebola, and it’ll be the same for the next one too. This won’t be the last big event we all need to change our behaviour for. And it won’t be the last time we see clouds of online rumour and hoax, conspiracy theory and blame.

So what do we do? Well, the good news is that the person at the heart of saving Europe and everyone in it is you. And me, of course – all of us. We’re not the victims in all of this – we’re a kind of willing prey, and we all need to change.

So my suggestion is this: seven rules for digital hygiene. Think of them as the internet equivalent of sneezing into a tissue.

Rule 1. The information that wants to find you isn’t necessarily the information you want to find. Actively look for the information you want, don’t let it find you.

Rule 2. Beware the passive scroll. This is when where you’re prey to processes that can be gamed, virals that can be shaped.

Rule 3. Outrage is your biggest vulnerability to being manipulated online. It’s easy to fire, and usually spurs activity that helpfully also makes the people on the opposing social/political side outraged too.

Rule 4. Slow Down. Pause before sharing. Give time for your rational thought processes to engage with what you’re reading.

Rule 5. Lean away from all the metrics that can be spoofed. Don’t trust something because it is popular, trending or visible.

Rule 6. On key pieces of information: health, diagnosis, but also say where to vote – never rely just on information sourced from social media.

The golden rule, number seven. Your attention is now both your most precious and coveted asset. Spend it wisely.

Think of the information diet, like your diet, has health consequences for all of us, and everyone around us. Especially in infodemics, it’s time to think about that.


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