Utrecht University: Empowered citizens can learn what fake news is

Reliable information is important for everyone, especially when it comes to health. Unfortunately, fake news threatens access to reliable information. How can people distinguish news from fake news, for example when it comes to Covid-19? The website stopcoronafakenews.com external linkshould help. The site contains a toolkit of legal, technological and educational measures to combat fake news about Covid-19 and was developed by Eugène Loos external linkof Utrecht University, thanks to funding from the SIDN Fonds external link.

Stopcoronafakenews.com helps citizens and, for example, journalists to deal critically with news sources. It can also be used to inform and inspire the general public and specific target groups such as young and old people, and patients. ‘The empowered citizen must be able to determine for himself what is true, and we provide tools and tips to do so,’ says Loos.

‘Of course I am not the one who is going to decide what fake news is, let’s be clear about that. That’s not at all possible,’ says Eugène Loos, researcher at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG). ‘I have made an inventory of what is known about measures you can take against fake news. This includes research reports and scientific studies into the effect of such measures. A limited number of these relate specifically to Covid-19, the majority are linked to health information in general. The Covid-19 pandemic is urgent, but we look beyond that. How can you detect fake news and deal with it critically? What works and what doesn’t?’

There is no such thing as the truth

But what is fake news anyway? ‘It is about truth. Empowered citizens should be able to determine for themselves what reliable information about Covid-19 is – and use that to avoid being infected or to recover from it. They must learn to recognise for themselves whether news is true or not. That is my goal,’ says Loos.

‘It is often a grey area; after all, there is no such thing as the truth. You can usually say that most scientific research points in a certain direction. There is sufficient evidence to say, for example, that the earth is not flat but round. Climate change is a fact, but there are different opinions about how to solve this problem. You have to be careful.’

Legal, technological or educational approach

‘I distinguish three approaches in tackling (Covid-19) fake news: the legal, the technological and the educational,’ Loos continues.

‘You can take legal action, for example by using the courts or the EU to force platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to remove fake news or block accounts. But again: who decides what is true or false? Nobody wants a Ministry of Truth.

You could also say: we are going to use a digital detection system to detect fake news. Such a technological application may be useful as a tool. But be aware that it may seem objective but of course it is not. For fact checking and fake news detection, for example, you can design an algorithm that takes a corpus of texts and images as its starting point, but then you have to be transparent about who has drawn up the algorithms and the criteria for what is true. This is often not the case.

Sometimes things go wrong with such an algorithm: news can seem true but is not true, and vice versa: what is identified as fake news by such a digital detection system does not always have to be correct. For example, we initially wanted to call our website ‘stopcoronafakenews.edu’ but the domain name provider did not accept the combination of ‘fake news’ and ‘education’, even though it clearly says ‘stop fake news’.

Just focusing on facts doesn’t work. It’s also about emotion and interaction.
‘The main message is: don’t think you can solve this just like that with legal and technological measures. The third approach, which I believe in the most, is educational. Activating critical thinking by people themselves, not just focusing on facts but also paying attention to emotion and interaction, for example by having students play a fake news game, also seems to work well. This is, of course, a process in the long run. Therefore, this topic will be in the core of my research agenda the coming years. This is not just about media wisdom and games for primary schools, but also about tools for other target groups, such as other generations, journalists and patients.

Merely displaying information and facts does not work. It is also about emotion and interaction. On the websites, you can find mini-courses and games with which you can educate yourself, as it were. On the website, you can find good examples of this. You can see for yourself what works best in your situation.’

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