When the coronavirus pandemic first became serious back in March, Elissa McKay started noticing more and more troubling social media posts appearing in her feed.
“It ran the entire spectrum from it [COVID] is no worse than the flu, all the way up to it has been planned, this is a hoax, it doesn’t exist or it does exist and it is part of government control,” Ms McKay said.
She also noticed a lot of fury directed at the media.
“There was so many posts going around saying ‘I am just sick to death of the media’,” she said.
“And ‘the media’ was a catch all term, it was everyone from the ABC all the way up to Andrew Bolt. It was, ‘I don’t like what you are telling me so I am going to shoot the messenger.'”
What worried the Mount Dandenong mum and former communications advisor was where people would then turn for vital health information if they were not consuming news during the pandemic.
“I was getting very concerned, particularly with our demographic up here in the Hills,” she said.
“There is a lot of the wellness community about and we were becoming very vulnerable to ‘alternative facts’, to paraphrase a Trumpism.”
‘We began to build consensus together’
Ms McKay helps run a community Facebook group called Mums of the Hills, which has many members from the Yarra Ranges, east of Melbourne.
Previously, she spent years working in communications for not-for-profit groups, the Federal Government and The Greens.
She decided to use her skills to try and include public health information in posts on her local community Facebook page.
It was a different response to many community groups on Facebook, which banned conversation about COVID-19 because it was deemed too controversial, too political or too difficult to moderate.
But Ms McKay thought it was important for people who were not consuming news to have another space to access information and talk about the pandemic.
“We were certainly expecting a fair amount of conflict and a fair amount of pushback,” she said.
Ms McKay wrote COVID updates, taking information from the Premier’s daily press conferences and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and summarising the news of the day with humour and links to external news reporting.
“I wanted people to question what they were reading, and what they were hearing,” she said.
I didn’t always have the answers, but a lot of the time other people in the group did.”
As the conversations grew, members of the group who were doctors, lawyers, public servants and psychologists began to share their own knowledge.
“We were able to cut through the misinformation and say ‘this is the piece of the puzzle that I have’ and ‘this is the information I am quite confident on’, and we began to build consensus together.”
Ms McKay believes her experience shows community social media groups can be part of the answer to combating dangerous online misinformation.
Women tuning out of news and into social media
RMIT University’s program manager for journalism, Alex Wake, said research from the University of Canberra had been tracking “news fatigue” in some groups, even before the pandemic started.
It shows that certain groups of people, particularly women, were starting to avoid news. Women are also spending more time on social media than men, Dr Wake said.
“Women, in this social media sphere, have always preferred taking recommendations of stories from others,” she said.
“So they are more likely to get the anti-vaxxer story, rather than going to The Age or to the Sydney Morning Herald or whatever it is to go to a verifiable news source.”
While major news outlets recorded big audience jumps during the pandemic, and some outlets recorded increased trust levels, Dr Wake said there was also another emerging trend.
Just as Ms McKay noticed on her Facebook page, Dr Wake said there had been a growing number of people who didn’t trust any media for their information.
She said the best way to get accurate information was for Australians to pay for quality journalism and read widely.
Political extremists and government agents pushing misinformation online
Cyber analyst Jake Wallis works for the independent think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which tracks online misinformation campaigns that some people read and share as news.
“There is a whole eco-system of misinformation around COVID-19 and the origins of the virus,” Dr Wallis said.
His research has found there are “state actors” involved in propagating false information about the virus.
“We have tracked pro-Russian vaccine disinformation from Eastern Ukraine into a prominent anti-vax Facebook group here in Australia,” he said.
While Dr Wallis acknowledged the links were not always direct, “you can track narrative and the impacts on audiences as far away as here in Australia”.
And it is not just foreign government agents trying to spread misinformation online.
Dr Wallis said extremist groups, from Islamic State to far-right political organisations, were “increasingly adapt at using social media environments to target mainstream audiences with narratives and perspectives that are outside the bounds of healthy political discourse”.
He has some simple tips for avoiding misinformation online.
“Just taking some critical distance, checking the source, reading content before we share it, and retaining our own critical judgement about content that we see online,” he said.