Misinformation masquerading as news is a problem that has only gotten worse with the ease of publication on the internet. But the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have taken it to a new level, drawing a lot of attention to rumors, bugs, and outright untruths. Given the scale of the threat, it seems important to ensure the accuracy of pandemic information. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
It is unlikely that there will be a single explanation as to why this was so. But Paris-based researchers have looked into the dynamics of pandemic news and found a potential contributor: Unreliable news sources were better at producing content that matched what readers were looking for.
supply and demand
The researchers behind the new work treated the news ecosystem as a function of supply and demand. The audience – in this case the Italian public – is interested in getting answers to specific questions or details on a topic. News sources try to meet this demand. To make matters worse, the news ecosystem includes organizations that do not produce quality information. Poor reporting can result from negligence or from fulfilling an agenda separate from delivering news.
It’s one thing to describe it all; Figuring out how to get numbers that can be used to analyze how the ecosystem works is another matter.
In this case, the researchers had access to several tools that help them solve these problems. First of all, there is a database of all articles published by Italian media, allowing researchers to analyze the supply half of the equation. Separately, there is a database of Italian media sources that fact-checkers have identified as unreliable due to publication errors or misinformation, allowing them to be analyzed independently from the general media. The database is not an exhaustive list of unreliable sources, so this should not be taken as a comprehensive analysis of the misinformation landscape.
For the demand side, they turned to Google Trends, which tracks the search terms people are interested in and the information they want to discover. Google Trends is also an imperfect method, as it doesn’t cover the entire population (some don’t use the internet or rely on other search providers), but it still gives a general picture of what many people are interested in.
A question of semantics
To examine the behavior of the news marketplace during the pandemic, the researchers selected several popular search terms. These included “coronavirus” to track coverage of the pandemic and five control terms such as “eurovision” and “papa francesco” (the Pope), which were also popular during this period. These will be tracked from the first identification of the virus in China through multiple waves of infection through August 2020.
It was clear that public interest (as reflected in search terms) emerged on average a day before serious media reported on the topic. But news from unreliable sources was significantly faster than the average news source. The increased speed was not simply because the less reliable sources tended to be online publications, which could therefore respond more quickly. Even compared to reliable online news outlets, the unreliable ones tended to be faster at placing articles that reflected search terms.
The researchers also looked at other search terms that popped up as “coronavirus” — things like “coronavirus N95 mask.” Looking at this context, it turned out that articles from questionable sources were of interest to the public better than the general news media. This was true daily throughout the study period, suggesting that the pattern is persistent.
Ultimately, unreliable sources seem to be producing relevant articles more quickly and better tailoring the content of those articles to things the public is most interested in. The finding suggests why misinformation has become widespread during the pandemic.
To make this more than just an indication, we’d have to look beyond Italy and see if this behavior occurs elsewhere. To help with this, the researchers developed an index based on the mathematical relationships between search terms and news editions identified here. This index should also allow us to determine whether the relationship also applies to other issues where misinformation is proliferating.
nature of human behavior2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01353-3 (About DOIs).