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Amplification or Friction? Misinformation online is about information quality

Misinformation online is an urgent global challenge. The gravity of the challenge, and its effect on global collective behaviour, has led to calls for social media/information disorder studies to be designated a “crisis discipline” like medicine, conservation biology and climate science.

Misinformation propagation in its current form is a global problem that requires urgent solutions. Historically, instances of misinformation publicly propagated can be found as far back as the sixth century AD. Misinformation was propagated publicly when Procopius, the historian, wrote deliberate falsehoods to tarnish the image of Emperor Justinian. In the history of misinformation propagation, three periods are generally recognised by scholars as turning points: World War II, the Cold War, and the 2016 presidential elections in the United States of America. Scholars began studying propaganda as a concept during World War II.

‘Disinformation’ as a concept is a product of the Cold War, it is derived from the Russian word ‘dezinformatsiya’. During the Cold War, state actors on both sides of the Iron Curtain engaged in misinformation propagation. Misinformation Issues in the context of information disorder online could be reduced to the matter of information quality: not just about distinguishing truth from falsehood but highlighting legitimate and credible information. In the online information ecosystem, ‘trustworthiness’ is key, an emphasis that trending content online should have a signal of the level of ‘trust’ we can place on such content. Some major social media platforms have recognized the importance of signals of trust and credibility, for low-quality content to be de-prioritized and high-quality amplified.

Information disorder – misinformation, disinformation and malinformation – is as old as time. What is distinctive about the present-day propagation is the speed, reach and virality, amplified by online social media

Information disorder – misinformation, disinformation and malinformation – is as old as time. What is distinctive about the present-day propagation is the speed, reach and virality, amplified by online social media. For example, during the 2016 US presidential elections an estimated 126 million Americans were exposed to online content, containing misinformation, which was sponsored by a foreign country.

Graphical misinformation has become widespread, some researchers now argue it is more popular than text-based misinformation. Images can infuse online content with a veneer of legitimacy because of the emotional response they may elicit, making the content go viral even when it is false. On the Web, every day, more than 3 billion images are shared and about 300 hours of video content is uploaded on YouTube.

Researchers, policy makers and analysts have revealed social media platforms culpable for amplifying misinformation. The obvious solution would for online platforms to de-prioritize misinformation (add friction against virality) and elevate genuine information (amplify for virality).

What really is ‘information’? It is important to be clear about a definition of information. Information scientists have adopted a general definition of information (GDI). According to the GDI, information is data that is well-formed and meaningful. Misinformation and disinformation are not genuine information because they are false, although they may have semantic content. Semantic factual content is what distinguishes authentic information from false information (in declarative language).

Information quality is an issue primarily about meaning, not so much about grammar. A sentence can be grammatically correct but have no meaning. Language functions properly only when it expresses meaning. In the examples below, all sentences are grammatical but only the sentence (3) contains authentic information. Sentences (1) and (2) are meaningless and (4) is a hypothesis:

(1) That man, the human next door, he is actually a reptile.

(2) He murdered that innocent man, but because he didn’t really kill him, the victim is dead.

(3) That tomato you are holding in your hand is a fruit.

(4) The sun will rise tomorrow.

Unless further evidence is given (or the presuppositions made clear) to support the claim made in (1), an organism cannot simultaneously be human and a reptile. It is possible that the writer of (1) has some secret knowledge about humans and reptiles and the belief expressed could be justified. Knowledge can only convey information when it is made concrete and articulated through the mind. If there is tacit knowledge hidden in the mind of the writer of (1), it is not expressed coherently: no information is communicated.

If belief in (1) could be justified, that would not make the statement necessarily true. Sentence (2) could be further clarified but as it stands is meaningless. The claim in (3) may appear strange to many people (a tomato is generally thought of as a vegetable), but, even without support (clarification in the sentence), the statement is authentic because it is scientifically correct. Stating that a tomato is a fruit is different from saying that the sun will rise tomorrow. The claim in (4) is not fact but a hypothesis because what is asserted is really speculation based on historical antecedent. Information can be regarded as the product from data processed through a filter of facts, logic and semantics.

Omoregie is the co-founder of Avram Turing, online information quality analysts. He is a member of the IEEE Information Theory Society. uyiosa.omoregie@avramturing.com, @UyiosaOM (Twitter)

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