Regulating Information During an ‘Infodemic’

The outbreak of, and response to, COVID-19 has developed at a rapid pace, with new information being published at an unprecedented rate. No matter where you look, there is an endless and insurmountable amount of information and advice being shared about COVID-19.

It would be normal to feel overwhelmed and fatigued by this amount of information, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed that COVID-19 and the response to it “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information.”

There is no doubt that the availability of technology and digital media enable us to stay better connected during periods of isolation. In addition, the ability to access news updates as they happen is vital. However, the lack of regulation of digital media content unconnected to Australian mainstream or “traditional” media can be extremely dangerous, as misinformation can spread rapidly and for the most part, these platforms bear no responsibility in Australia for such content.

Incorrect information can seriously undermine the efforts of governments, organisations and individuals to mitigate the direct and indirect effects of the virus. Too much information is likely to cause uncertainty and increase fear, so it is especially important that accurate information is at the forefront. So, how is the ‘infodemic’ being managed and how is information about COVID-19 being regulated for digital media, if at all?

Physically isolated but digitally connected

This latest coronavirus is the first pandemic during the ‘smartphone’ era, and it is hardly surprising that digital media is being used more than ever before in order to maintain human contact while people across the globe are being told to socially distance and self-isolate.

There is no question that social and digital media have been useful during the outbreak of COVID-19. For example, there have been ‘memes’ of proper handwashing procedure; the use of Skype, Facetime, Zoom and other similar platforms to connect workers working from home, or to connect children to the grandparents they can no longer visit.

This content provides comfort to people who are likely feeling scared and alone, and acts as a much needed relief from the constant news and anxiety about the future. It also encourages people to participate in social distancing, so that they can feel a part of this online movement. But the news is not all good.

Access to news in Australia

According to the University of Canberra’s News & Media Research Centre Digital News Report: Australia 2019:

  • 62% of Australians are concerned about fake news and consumers feel they need to partake in their own verification techniques, such as “checking stories against other sources, choosing more reliable brands and not sharing a dubious story”. However, those with lower education and income are less likely to participate in this type of behaviour; and
  • 44% of Australians do not trust the news.

Further, according to the latest Guardian Essential Survey released on 24 March 2020, 35% of 1,034 sample Australians “trust the media to give them honest and reliable information about the pandemic”. The results of this survey also suggest that older people are more likely than younger people to feel informed about the pandemic, but only 35% of the sample “trust the media to provide honest and objective information about the COVID-19 outbreak”.

There are also reports which suggest that, despite the abundance of information on social media and new media during the COVID-19 pandemic, people in the UK are turning to traditional media as a trusted source of information.1 This is likely a response to the ‘infodemic’ and is highlighted by the fact that the Government in the UK is relying on traditional media to disseminate the latest updates on COVID-19.2

With an over-abundance of information in the world, that is not always accurate, it is easy to see why there are increasing levels of distrust for the news, as well as why people are relying on traditional channels for direct messages from the government.

Regulation of traditional media vs digital media

In Australia, traditional media such as broadcasters and print media have an obligation to report the news accurately according to their respective editorial standards and Codes of Conduct.3 Complaints are investigated by independent bodies, such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the Australian Press Council (APS). However, these obligations do not extend generally to digital media platforms or their user generated content.

In July 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released its official report after the 18-month Digital Platforms Inquiry, which focussed on platforms such as Facebook and Google. The ACCC made 23 recommendations, and most notably for the purposes of this discussion, it recommended new codes of practices to govern inaccurate information published on digital platforms to be enforced by an independent body such as the ACMA; to create a ‘platform neutral’ approach, finding that the “digitalisation of news sources and media content has highlighted the inconsistencies in Australia’s current sector-specific approach to media regulation in Australia”; and that measures be taken to improve media literacy in the community, “to ensure all Australians are well equipped to identify and appropriately scrutinise low quality or unreliable news encountered through digital platforms.”

The ACCC warned that in Australia, “…virtually no media regulation applies to digital platforms.” Unsurprisingly, Facebook, Twitter and Google rejected the proposals made after the Digital Platforms Inquiry, voicing concerns that a regulator would turn into the “truth police”. They also warned against a “one-size fits all” approach that could have “unintended consequences for the digital industry” and noted that “what may be considered appropriate in one forum…may be considered as intrusive and inappropriate on a private message platform”.

Various bodies around the world have released reports with a similar scope, and most agree that “digital platforms are more than just conduits of other people’s content – and this brings certain responsibilities”.4 The ACCC Report especially questioned this distinction between platforms and publishers.

The Australian government responded to the Digital Platforms Inquiry in December 2019 and directed that the major digital platforms should “develop a voluntary code (or codes) of conduct for disinformation and news quality. The ACMA will have oversight of the codes and report to the Government on the adequacy of platforms’ measures and the broader impacts of disinformation.” These codes are due to be developed this year. The government also supported the recommendation to develop a “platform-neutral-regulatory framework covering both online and offline delivery of media content to Australian consumers”, as well as developing media literacy materials, especially for “students, older adults and other vulnerable people”.

Regulation of information on digital media during the ‘infodemic’

Due to the lack of regulation, it has been up to each respective digital media company to regulate misinformation themselves during the COVID-19 outbreak. On 4 March 2020, Mark Zuckerberg posted that Facebook was implementing its own measures to respond to the coronavirus to ensure “everyone can access credible and accurate information”. Facebook is also prioritising information provided by the World Health Organization or relevant local health authorities. For example, Facebook is giving free ads to the WHO and ad credits for other official organisations. If information does not meet Facebook’s fact-checking standards, it will potentially be removed or marked with Facebook’s ‘fact-check’ label. Facebook has been subject to criticism in the past for failing to remove content which has not passed their fact-checking processes and it appears to be taking the spread of misinformation during the coronavirus more seriously.

In a major step for Twitter, it has also announced that it will be removing incorrect information about COVID-19 from its platform; but only after the platform was subject to sustained criticism of the inadequacies of its policies which tend to favour free, rather than accurate, speech. It is also announced that it is working with official health organisations to combat the spread of misinformation which conflicts with official and authoritative sources.

More recently established digital platforms such as TikTok and WhatsApp are also struggling to stay on top of the spread of misinformation on their platforms.5 For WhatsApp, these concerns are being heard most clearly in the UK. It is especially difficult to correct misinformation that appears in private chats that are only viewed by the parties to the conversation, as opposed to Facebook or Twitter, where significant amounts of content are made public to large groups of online users. WhatsApp is therefore one example of where a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to regulating digital media may not be appropriate.

In the USA, young health professionals are turning to TikTok to inform young people about the facts surrounding COVID-19 and to stamp out any incorrect information appearing on the platform. There are reports which suggest that health care professionals feel it is their “duty” to correct any misinformation that is being spread on social media.6 At least three issues arise from this arrangement: first, it places the responsibility of fact-checking on the users of the platform; second, it places yet another burden on already overwhelmed health professionals; and third, without support from social media platforms, through algorithms or moderation, posts from young health professionals aren’t given any greater reach or importance than the misinformation they are attempting to debunk. This in turn can create greater confusion for digital media users.

The WHO Technical Risk Communication and Social Media teams have been tracking the most prevalent myths and rumours on social media so that they can rebuke those myths on their on social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Learnings from coronavirus for regulation of digital media

The outbreak of COVID-19 has taught the world some valuable lessons about how news is consumed and what is effective in a time of crisis. When news is consumed online, Australians are less likely to fact-check if they have socially and economically disadvantaged. Digital media platforms are not currently obliged to ensure the factual accuracy of information and instead rely on their own policies to manage these issues. This presents an obvious danger for those who are not likely or able to fact-check sources themselves and has undoubtedly contributed to Australia’s distrust of the news they consume online.

Based on Facebook’s response to the coronavirus, it is possible for digital media platforms to regulate fake news more effectively and promote information coming from official organisations where necessary. However, without any repercussions for the facilitation or spread of misinformation, or a regulatory body to investigate complaints, users are left with no guarantees that these companies will regulate themselves ethically and effectively. The success of the ACMA overseeing the development and enforcement of voluntary codes for the major digital platforms also remains to be seen.

1.Jim Waterson and Dan Sabbagh, “Battling Coronavirus Misinformation In The Age Of Social Media” The Guardian (2020)
2. Ibid.
3. See Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice (2018); Australian Press Council Standards
4. Sacha Molitorisz and Derek Wilding, “The Law Is Closing In On Facebook And The ‘Digital Gangsters'” The Conversation (2019)
5. Above n 1; Jordyn Tilchen, “Young People Are Using Tiktok To Ease Their Coronavirus Fears. Here’s How” MTV (2020)
6. Jordyn Tilchen, “Young People Are Using Tiktok To Ease Their Coronavirus Fears. Here’s How” MTV (2020)

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Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.
© ADDISONS. No part of this document may in any form or by any means be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted without prior written consent. This document is for general information only and cannot be relied upon as legal advice.