‘The information apocalypse’: How BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman hunts down misinformation and hoaxes

corona apocalypse

The New Normal, was a weekly interactive show focused on how publishers are adapting their businesses during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. More from the series →

Over the past three months, the media industry has been dedicated to covering the global pandemic. In the past two weeks, a significant shift has been made to covering the George Floyd protests. Both subjects have dominated the news cycle and as a result, misinformation and false news have popped up all over the internet. 

“We are in a version of the information apocalypse,” said Craig Silverman, media editor of BuzzFeed News.

There is a natural human progression for processing information that Silverman said has always had the tendency to lead to creating fictitious beliefs and conspiracy theories. But combining those natural human behaviors with a radically different digital environment consisting of new technology and social platforms has poured fuel to the fire, Silverman said. 

“It creates a more open and more decentralized environment that is way easier to manipulate and exploit,” he said, adding that governments and conspiratorial communities can end up being weaponized very inexpensively and in a way that reaches significantly more people faster than ever before. 

This is where misinformation and false news becomes a major issue in the media industry, but also an issue for education and public safety as a whole. 

In the latest episode of The New Normal, Digiday’s weekly show, Silverman said that the people working in the media and marketing industries have a responsibility to look closely at how they are feeding into the information cycle both from a content standpoint and from a monetary standpoint. The people who are winning in the misinformation game are the people who are making money off of it. 

“Every single person who works in media and works in advertising is empowered in this environment,” Silverman said. “If you think about that power … of where you spend your money and attention, that’s a positive thing and that’s something that you can have an impact on.” 

Why “fake news” is not a good term

Fake news has gained a strong political connotation in the United States since 2016, despite world and non-political news also falling victim at times. Silverman said that one benefit from having an unprecedented global pandemic is that people are opening up their eyes more than ever before to the problem of misinformation since it has become a matter of public health.

“The term ‘fake news’ has become useless to a certain extent,” he said. “It is a good wakeup call for some people who viewed this stuff as a political messaging” issue. Now they realize that misinformation revolving around coronavirus can and will lead to significant safety and health issues.

Using a new code for misinformation

Since “fake news” itself has become a polarized term, Silverman said that his team has started uses a different code for identifying information that is not known to be 100% true.

  • Unverified can be used to classify information that does not have sources or evidence behind it. It can also help to identify claims made or articles written that do not include original reporting behind them. This information should be treated with healthy skepticism, according to Silverman’s team.
  • Misleading is a term that can be used to describe a real occurrence that is taken out of context, like mis-captioning a video or photo. Additionally, it works for images presented at a deceptive angle or descriptions of events that cherry-pick facts. This information should avoid being spread or engaged with, according to Silverman.
  • False is a term that can be applied to information that reliable sources or clear evidence have refuted. This can be applied to images or videos filmed at a different time or location but are presented as being recent or coming from a different place.

Platforms’ problems are too big to handle

When platforms first came out, Silverman said that there was a lot of naivety around the impact that open social platforms could have on the sharing of information. Now, Facebook and its other property WhatsApp, are two of the largest contributors to the spread of misinformation on the internet. 

Silverman said that it is a good sign that the platforms are interested in attempting to fix the issues coming from false news on the platform. The issue is, however, that there are so many people on the platforms that the platform corporations themselves don’t have the human power to make a substantial impact on decreasing the amount of false information in circulation. 

“[Platforms] have hired tons of people to work on content moderation, security and integrity, but they probably could quadruple or quintuple — who knows how many people that they need — to actually have a meaningful handle on applying their policies,” said Silverman.

Polarized media sites are a breeding ground for conspiracies

“There is a phenomenon called group polarization The more people who agree with each other stay together and talk to each other, the more extreme their views become,” said Silverman. So by that virtue, having a very large right-wing media ecosystem, over time it can move into posting about more extreme elements.

While right-wing media tends to be more susceptible to gaining conspiracy theories, Silverman said this happens in left-wing media as well, pointing to the anti vaxxer movement. Regardless of the political affiliations, however, Silverman said that these media sites do not have to solely be sharing false information, but they could share unverified or misleading information, or put out counter-programming that distracts from other news going on in the world.

Join us for our next episode of The New Normal on Friday, June 12 at noon ET. Chad Mumm, svp of entertainment at Vox Media Studios, will talk with Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey about the studio’s approach to remote video production and the future of live-streaming. Register here.


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