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UC researchers call for more to be done to counter the spread of misleading information

18 November 2020: A new report from researchers at the University of Canberra’s News & Media Research Centre (N&MRC) highlights the need for a coordinated approach to digital literacy programs in Australia and for better “troll-identifying” tools.

At the same time, social media companies could play their part by improving efforts to monitor and remove user accounts which repeatedly spread baseless conspiracy theories.

The report by Associate Professor of Communication, Dr Mathieu O’Neil and Associate Professor Michael Jensen from the N&MRC, considers news consumption data to reveal high levels of concern about misinformation among news consumers.

“This is particularly acute given the declining trust in news,” said Dr O’Neil.

The report re-analysed data collected for this year’s Digital News Report: Australia, which provides a base of evidence for understanding how Australians consume news and perceive misinformation.

“Australians are rightly concerned about the role which social media platforms – particularly Facebook – play in spreading misinformation,” said Dr O’Neil.

“In the context of the current pandemic, enabling the spread of health misinformation is an egregious activity.”

The report also brings together cutting-edge perspectives about the role of misinformation in Australian media and politics, including research analysing Twitter “troll” accounts controlled by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 Australian election.

“We were very surprised at the level of sophistication of Russian IRA operations in 2016. While it’s not clear to what extent they swayed Australians’ opinions, this should not detract from the fact that these attempts occurred – and are still occurring,” said Dr O’Neil.

Taking a networked approach to the research process, Dr O’Neil and Dr Jensen worked in partnership with the Australian National University’s (ANU) Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks, one of the world’s leading e-social science hubs. The report also includes expert commentary from researchers Professor Axel Bruns and Senior Lecturer Tim Graham from Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The final perspective comes from journalists themselves. An interview with Ms Kelsie Iorio (ABC Digital) demonstrates the pressures on journalists when confronted with misled audiences.

Commentary from Chris Zappone (The Age) argues that news is now but a membrane among many other layers of networked information generated by social media, entertainment, business and communities.

Dr O’Neil says his passion for researching misinformation dates to his early interest in Stalinist/Maoist efforts to rewrite history by falsifying images, an interest he has incorporated into his teaching in the School of Communication and Arts at the University’s Faculty of Arts and Design.

According to Dr O’Neil, propaganda was generally not seen as a concern until 2016, when the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom Brexit campaign brought the capacity for social media to facilitate the dissemination of misleading information into sharp relief.

In 2020, COVID-19 saw many more people staying at home – and an exponential increase in the spread of anti-scientific conspiracies.

Dr O’Neil calls this a form of “self-propaganda, as people can share and embellish conspiratorial beliefs”.

“My PhD was on underground media in the US, so I have long been attuned to the critique that mainstream media represents a form of [corporate] propaganda,” said Dr O’Neil.

“This belief is now widespread among conspiracy believers, and understanding this critical tradition represents the basis for establishing a dialogue with them.”

The full report can be found here.