The Finnish public broadcasting service Yle published a reportage on YouTube search engine results with the word “covid vaccine” (koronarokote) on the 30th of May 2021. The results were shocking. In spite of Youtube’s Covid-19 medical misinformation policy and the promise to ban misleading covid-19 vaccine videos, the Finnish search results were not topped by medically checked information but by disinformation, conspiracy theories and religious materials. The journalists explored 477 Youtube channels and 8000 videos. The Finnish Youtube scene was very different from the English speaking Youtube scene, in which the Youtube algorithms had been more successful in preventing disinformation material.
It is evident that the “big platforms” do not seem to have interest in dealing with smaller language regions. The Internet users are left to the mercy of disinformation diffusers.
The article discusses several options that would empower Internet users to gain control over their digital environments by boosting their information literacy skills and their cognitive resistance to manipulation.
Online vs. offline environments
According to Koryzeva et al’s (2020) excellent article “Citizens versus the internet”, online environments are replete with smart, highly adaptive choice architectures designed primarily to maximize commercial interests, capture and sustain users’ attention, monetize user data, and predict and influence future behavior. In the worst scenario this can facilitate political extremism, and the spread of disinformation.
Online and offline environments differ from each other in ways that have important consequences for people’s online experiences and behavior. In the online environment, one can broadcast a message to audiences of millions, whereas in face-to-face communication, there are physical limits to how many people can join a conversation (Barasch & Berger, 2014).
The amount of information available to anybody in digital environments is breathtaking and it is possible to diffuse any information effortlessly to vast audiences in no time. Online environments develop rapidly and constantly compared with most offline environments. Contents can be changed, removed and added all the time.
Kozyreva et al (2020) have identified four types of challenges typical to online environments: persuasive and manipulative choice architectures, AI-assisted information architectures, false and misleading information, and distracting environments. When people are accessing online information through search engines, their results are regulated by algorithms developed by corporations “in pursuit of profits and with little transparency or public oversight” (Kozyrova et al 2020). In addition, “in democratic countries technology companies have accumulated unprecedented resources, market advantages, and control over people’s data and access to information” (Zuboff, 2019). The collection of data of online users is based on highly developed machine-learning systems and algorithms which outperform us humans and which are not transparent. That’s why the results of the search engines and recommender system used e.g. by Youtube are individualized and unpredictable.
How to react to all this?
Kozyreva et al (2020) present four entry points for possible interventions
Law and ethics including legislative regulations and ethical guidelines
Interventions to mitigate adverse social consequences by taking measures to remove fake and automated account, ensure transparency in political ads and detecting and limiting the spread of disinformation
Interventions directed to at public as recipients and producers of information- for example, school curricula for digital-information literacy that teach students how to search, filter, evaluate, and manage data, information, and digital content (e.g., Breakstone et al.,2018; McGrew et al., 2019).
Behavioral and cognitive
Interventions by psychological and social sciences to take measures to empower people and steer their decision making toward greater individual and public good.
As a member of Faktabaari EDU, I am particularly interested in further developing educational interventions. Faktabaari has been promoting digital information literacy for Finnish teachers and student in line with the Finnish core curricula goals and objectives (informaatiolukutaito-opas) .
Digital information literacy can be defined as a set of skills and abilities which everyone needs to undertake information-related tasks: how to discover, access, interpret, analyse, manage, create, communicate, store and share information in the digital environment. It is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use – whether materials under analysis are valid, accurate, acceptable, reliable, appropriate, useful and/or persuasive. Digital information literacy also empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to fully engage with society.
In the past months we have added some new tools to the toolbox fighting against disinformation.
When using powerful search engines, we sometimes get millions of hits. How to select information, which is useful, truthful and which meets our initial information need? In this process we need human critical thinking to evaluate the value of the content algorithms are proposing for us – and we have put aside, and ignore, most of the hits.
Already in 1971 – far before Internet time – Herbert Simon noted that information overload results in a scarcity of attention. According to Wineburg & McGrew (2019), advertisers, corporations, lobbyists, clickbait sites, conspiracy theorists, hate groups, and foreign governments work overtime to hijack our online attention. Often the wisest thing to do is to preserve attention by practicing strategic ignoring. Under conditions of limited attention, the most crucial decision to make is where to allocate it.
So, we must develop skills to ignore great amounts of non-important information. We should embrace strategic ignoring to avoid disinformation and to preserve our limited amount of attention on content which is really worth reading.
One of the new tools in the digital information literacy toolbox is the lateral reading approach in which the reader verifies the background of the online information (reliability of the source, facts, stats, sources) from different sites and sources before starting to read the text at hand.
Due to the differences between the online and offline information environments, it is necessary to pay more attention to the source of the online information. The traditional reading approach can be ineffective in a digital environment. If we are too busy to analyse unfamiliar online information without checking the origin of the article in the first place – we might not necessarily notice that the whole text is based on biased information.
Wineburg & McGrew (2019) observed how students, academics and fact-checkers deal with previously unknown online information. Fact-checkers opened up several tabs across the horizontal axis of their browser and searched for information about the organization or individual behind it. Only after verifying what other sites had to say, they returned to the text. Using this approach, fact checkers were able to quickly verify sites that masked their intent and sponsors. In the same experiment students and academics were focused on the original site, resulting in confusion about its real agenda or sponsor.
The strategy used by professional fact-checkers to read online feeds laterally across many connected sites instead of digging deep into the text at hand has proven to be a quick and effective way to avoid spending attention, time and energy on biased information.
Online traffic rules
When Yle journalists shared their findings with Youtube, they reacted immediately and changed their search engine concerning the Finnish word “koronatesti”. Well done! In general, it would be excellent if the big online platforms would start to regulate their content more carefully even without feedback from the journalists or fact checkers!
But we cannot count for the good will of the platforms. We need to improve our digital skills and education input! Citizens should be taught to develop their critical thinking and digital information literacy skills.
In addition, simple online traffic rules would be useful for us all. When I was at school, I was taught simple traffic instructions: First, look to left – and then to right – and to left again before crossing the street. We need similar clear instructions also for online environments .
When confronted with an unknown online content, remember to verify in the first place
- Who’s behind the information?
- What’s the evidence?
- What do other sources say?
Let’s reserve our limited attention to texts worth reading!
Barasch, A., & Berger, J. (2014). Broadcasting and narrowcasting: How audience size affects what people share. Journal of Marketing Research, 51, 286–299. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmr.13.0238
Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., Ortega, T., & Wineburg, S. (2018). Teaching students to navigate the online landscape. Social Education, 82, 219–221.
Breakstone, Smith, Wineburg, Rapaport, Carle, Garland, and Saavedra (2021). Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait. https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:cz440cm8408/Students%27%20Civic%20Online%20Reasoning_2021.pdf
Helin, Satu (30.5.2021). Salaliittoja ja Raamattua. Yle. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-11951146
Criddle, Christina (2020) Coronavirus: YouTube bans misleading Covid-19 vaccine videos. BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54541517
Google (Retrieved 5/2021). COVID-19 medical misinformation policy https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/9891785?hl=en
Kivinen, K. (Ed. 2020) Informaatiolukutaito-opas. Faktabaari. https://faktabaari.fi/assets/Informaatiolukutaito-opas_Faktabaari_EDU.pdf
Kozyreva, A., Lewandowsky, S. and Hertwig, R. (2020). Citizens Versus the Internet: Confronting Digital Challenges With Cognitive Tools. Association for Psychological Science. SAGE
Simon, H. A. (1971). Designing organizations for an information-rich world. In M. Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, communications, and the public interest (pp. 37–72). John Hopkins University Press
Wineburg, S., & McGrew, S. (2019). Lateral reading and the nature of expertise: Reading less and learning more when evaluating digital information. Teachers College Record, 121(11), Article 22806. https://www.tcrecord.org/content.asp?contentid=22806
Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for the future at the new frontier of power. Profile Books.