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Can fact-checking clean up toxic fake news spills? Part 2: How to stop fueling the fire

The login/sign up screen for a Twitter account is seen on a laptop computer on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

TOKYO -- The old expression, "A lie can travel around the world and back again before the truth can get its boots on," is all the more true in the social media age.

    A 2018 study by scholars at MIT found that false news stories posted to Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones, and it takes about six times as long for a true piece of news to reach 1,500 people on the platform than a fake one. Furthermore, Twitter "cascades" -- unbroken chains of retweets -- hit a depth of 10 user layers around 20 times faster for false information than true. In short, misinformation pollution spreads much faster than facts.

    In an environment where mis- and disinformation spreads so quickly and easily, does the news media have a responsibility to go out there and set the record straight? This question has become even more pressing amid an eruption of online coronavirus misinformation so severe it was dubbed an "infodemic" by the World Health Organization.

    The answer, according to researchers in Japan and the United States who spoke to The Mainichi, is: It depends. One might ask, what's wrong with unmasking a lie? It turns out that, if that lie has not spread very far to begin with, publicly debunking it on a major news site can make it worse. Reporting on the lie pushes it in front of people who have never seen it before, raising its prominence and shareability, and thus perhaps even helping fulfill the goals of those behind the falsehood.

    News outlets "can become like a virus 'super-spreader'," so "they need to be careful about what they put out there," says Hiroyuki Fujishiro, a journalism professor at Tokyo's Hosei University and the author of an upcoming book on disinformation. And what they put out there can have real-world consequences.

    Like a lot of places, stores across Japan got cleared out of toilet paper in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. The standard story about why this happened here is that disinformation about a toilet paper shortage spread across social media and sparked a run on the shops, creating a real toilet paper shortage. However, research by University of Tokyo professor Fujio Toriumi, an expert in social media and network analysis, suggests this is not how it went.

    Toriumi collected 4.6 million tweets posted between Feb. 21 and March 13 last year that included the Japanese word for toilet paper, covering the period just before and then during the toilet roll crisis. Among the posts sent from Feb. 21 to 26, there were just 18 posts including the false toilet roll shortage claim tweeted or retweeted 10-plus times.

    But tweets debunking the rumor multiplied, far outnumbering those pushing the misinformation. According to Toriumi's data, this picked up speed after major news outlets began reporting on the "toilet paper shortage disinformation" supposedly going around social media. Looking at toilet paper sales for the period, Toriumi found that they were holding steady on Feb. 23, but began to spike after that, as the "debunking" picked up strength.

    Another example Toriumi points to is the Twitter hashtag "Tokyo dasshutsu," literally "escaping Tokyo." On April 7 last year, when worries were growing about Japan's worsening coronavirus situation, a major national daily posted a story on its homepage about the "escaping Tokyo" hashtag spreading on Twitter. However, when Toriumi looked at the data, he found that before the story had gone live, there had been just 28 tweets using the hashtag. Twenty-four hours later, there had been more than 1.52 million.

    "It's not just the news media, but if you have many quarters saying, 'There's a falsehood going around' when it isn't really, then that is also a falsehood that spreads," Toriumi tells The Mainichi.

    "Of course, it's not wrong to point out that a falsehood is a falsehood," he continues. "But lately we see many cases of the media taking a falsehood or piece of information that hasn't spread so much and reporting it as though it has. And I think that's a problem."

    So how can reporters and editors decide what online misinformation to take aim at? Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at the Department of Communications at Syracuse University in New York State and co-author of the recently released book "You Are Here," on navigating our "polluted media landscape," says it's all about the numbers.

    If a piece of misinformation has reached a trending "tipping point" on social media, then reporters have to engage with it, she tells The Mainichi, "because then you're dealing with something that isn't quarantinable." She adds, "It already has been amplified by platforms and algorithms. Those mechanisms have made the decision for the journalist: This is now a story."

    Toriumi says, "I think that it's important to decide what to report on based on the numbers. I think there are often situations where those around you are getting very excited about a topic, but it's not actually trending beyond your circle. And sometimes journalists may decide to write about things like that."

    But, warns Phillips, "even if you have no choice but to engage with the story, you become part of that story," she says. "You have to understand that, whatever you do (as a journalist) for better or for worse is going to impact the trajectory of the (misinformation) storm," and "the most problematic reporting is done by journalists who are not thinking of themselves as a driver of the storm."

    One factor fueling less than ideal coverage of misinformation, all three academics agreed, could be the nature of commercial media itself. As Phillips says, "The problem is not fake news; the problem is not that the system is broken. The problem is that the system is working as it was designed to work," adding that "reporting is embedded within these broader structural problems that ultimately hinge in the monetization of information."

    In short, it is tempting to dive into "fake news" stories because they drive traffic to news sites, and thus revenue. And once they are on a major news site, then people engage with them more, "and everything ends up feeding into everything else."

    How to debunk online falsehoods, then? Hosei University's Fujishiro believes that "the platforms -- in Japan it's Twitter that's most prominent -- need to step up to combat fake news," by deleting offending tweets and accounts.

    But on the journalistic side, Phillips says there are better ways to report on misinformation once it becomes a real story that needs to be engaged with. Namely, instead of focusing on the lie itself, reporters should turn their lens on the environment that allowed it to spread, so that readers are "better equipped to understand why things happen online in the way that they do."

    But the watchword should be caution. A close examination of who is saying what and how they are saying it is needed, says the University of Tokyo's Toriumi, as well as grasping the actual spread of a falsehood through the social media ecosystem.

    Adds Fujishiro, "it's very important for them (news professionals) to narrow down debunking targets. Or fact-checking can be like pouring oil on the fire."

    (By Robert Sakai-Irvine, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I was on the effectiveness of fact-checking political speech.

    Disclosure: Robert Sakai-Irvine is an adjunct lecturer in journalism and media literacy at Hosei University. However, he is not involved in any way with associate professor Fujishiro's work, and had no relationship with him before reporting for this article.

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