In September, the World Health Organization and eight other organizations issued a statement about the infodemic (not the pandemic).
What is an infodemic? An overabundance of information that includes deliberate attempts to share wrong information, to polarize perspective and to advance alternative agendas, among other things.
The statement noted, “the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic.”
One way technology amplifies the infodemic is through algorithms, a set of instructions technology is programmed to follow to achieve a certain result. For example, if you are online shopping and place an item in your cart, the retailer might have an algorithm that suggests other products. You may see, “People who purchased this item also considered these items.”
This example really isn’t much different than a server asking if you’d like “fries with that.” It’s upselling to achieve the goal of more sales.
Upselling also works to advance ideologies and misinformation. For example, if you are on social media, and you like, comment or share a post that includes something racist, sexist, that is a conspiracy theory or that touts fiction as fact, then algorithms will continue to show you similar content to achieve the goal of more activity. In other words, “People who liked this post also engaged with these other posts.” Why? Activity is the basis for advertising revenue.
While you may think the content you are seeing on digital platforms is random, it’s not. Every search, swipe and share makes the algorithms you encounter smarter.
The infodemic isn’t new to the internet. Similar conversations may have happened with the invention of the printing press and the publishing of the penny press, when news and information of the day could easily be made available to the masses and not rely on oral tradition or the wealthy who could afford to print or purchase books and newspapers.
In the 1980s, another monumental shift occurred when cable television and the 24-hour news cycle forever changed the way news was presented and consumed. This in turn, led to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had required media outlets to present unbiased, fair coverage of key news. The repeal was made because people could seek out multiple perspectives from many media outlets, rather than just the big three that had been around for decades.
Furthermore, local news stations are being purchased by large businesses. Sinclair Media Group is one that owns nearly 300 television stations, or more than 70 percent of local news stations, across the country. Sinclair pushes a specific agenda through what is still largely the most trusted news source: local news. Sinclair anchors are told what to say and who to interview.
The bottom line is this: much like the pandemic, we have to take responsibility for our mental and intellectual health in the infodemic. We must commit to seeking out a variety of sources from the right, left, center and non-partisan to determine fact from fiction.