Credit: Marcus Woodbridge on Unsplash

According to the latest Ofcom digital habits survey, half of Brits went online to access news and information during the pandemic. However, some 46 per cent reported encountering false or misleading information about the covid crisis last year, primarily around face mask advice (this proportion had fallen to 30 per cent by early 2021).

However, even as people are increasingly turning to social media for news updates, only 16 per cent of those who used Facebook to get information about the pandemic said they trusted it as a source, and nearly a half (43 per cent) said they did not.

All of this took place against a backdrop of the pandemic, a time when the need for clear and factual communication was probably the most urgent public health focus. And yet, during that time, Semrush data shows that combined site traffic to the top UK media outlets actually dropped by nearly 9 per cent during the height of last year’s pandemic.

While it may be comprehensible due to the UK government’s direct daily briefings on the covid crisis, taking the updates ‘straight from the horse's mouth’ does overlook much of the skill, analysis and valuable commentary which a well trained Fourth Estate provides to the nation.

The news media has traditionally offered the public a robust perspective on world matters. Whether you agree or disagree with comment, opinion and analysis, the important role they play is underlined by journalists’ training – the fact that there are fact-checking mechanics in place which serve to make it difficult to share undiluted opinion directly – unless it is coming from verified and genuine experts.

Social media’s ability to keep people’s finger on the pulse about immediate occurrences means it is often taking precedence over what information is shared and how, and that it is exceptionally difficult for people to distinguish fact from opinion, especially when people are time-poor. The segmentation of social also makes it easier for people to stay within the confines of content that aligns with their existing world views, although some research shows that social media users tend to have more diversified news diets.

There was an increase of 1,329 per cent for online searches on "Coronavirus conspiracy theory" in March 2020 in the UK.Laura Morelli

Misinformation often comes from disreputable, self-serving, misinformed or even deeply malicious sources, and yet it plays into people’s belief structures and can even make massive and hard to comprehend global events seem more rational. It is even more powerful in the hands of friends and family – the ‘trusted advisor effect’ – as we are more likely to trust the people we know.

In a world underpinned by social media sharing and connections, those posts can travel a long way before being challenged. For just these reasons, in the early days of the pandemic, we were able to observe massive spikes around coronavirus conspiracy theories online. For example, there was an increase of 1,329 per cent for online searches on "Coronavirus conspiracy theory" in March 2020 in the UK.

Meanwhile searches for "Coronavirus bioweapon" increased by 376 per cent, there was a 488 per cent increase in searches for "Coronavirus fake" and an increase of 456 per cent for "Is coronavirus real?"

In the face of social sharing and the internet, which makes it easy to self-publish and find like-minded audiences, where does this leave the established press? Doing what it does best – locating the facts and verifying are top of the agenda. We have observed a rapid increase in data journalism, with many outlets boasting teams that can dissect facts, figures and statistics to get to the root of issues.

Many are also leaning into fact-checking the claims of public figures and widely shared claims to act as essential checks and balances in the face of easily spread claims. However, this can seem like futile efforts to stem the tide in a world where algorithms and personal preferences are filtering news which does not match people’s personal tastes.

A strong and well-trained press is essential when it comes to the ongoing fight against mis- and disinformation, especially when it is being spread so readily and without curbs. It is equally vital that the press keeps up to date with digital trends to understand and ensure it is at least keeping pace with innovative and often highly motivated false information spreaders. Ensuring that reputable media outlets can stay competitive and front of mind with their audiences will be as key to the future of their businesses as ensuring that real news and facts are recognised.

Laura Morelli is head of Media UK and Australia at Semrush.

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