Fighting misinformation: an ethical perspective

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Pinelopi Troullinou | Senior Research Analyst

Date: 5 July 2021

In traditional media, journalists have received training and need to follow specific standards of accuracy and reliability and a code of ethics. On social media, the information is no longer produced and distributed exclusively by journalists and experts, and it is not controlled by editors. Anyone with Internet access can create and share information. Anyone can act as a journalist.

The benefits of fast and easy access to information are enormous. These features can bring positive changes both on a personal and societal level giving voice to the most vulnerable and under-represented groups in society. At the same time, however, these same features carry great risks. The fact that the quality of information is not assessed in online environments may expose users to information that is untrue, modified, incomplete or misleading.

This phenomenon of misinformation can lead to detrimental risks as proved in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading people to reject scientific guidelines such as social-distancing and vaccination and following unjustified dangerous practices like bleach consumption instead.

The spread of misinformation is also causing a general disbelief attitude in social media users, who tend to stop consuming or accepting information altogether, putting Democracy at risk. Therefore, discussions around misinformation need to include information ethics addressing also information control by social media platforms, as well as social media users’ responsibility.

Combating misinformation on social media

Following the intense public debate around the role of social media in the widespread of misinformation,  social media platforms have integrated features that can inform users of false information such as providing background on the news source, enlisting fact checkers to identify false content, as well as providing warning and tips on spotting fake news.

So far, these strategies seem to have had a limited impact. They focus on the external detection of false information without involving directly social media users in this process. This means that social media users need to rely on external parties to assess information trustworthiness and they do not gain the necessary skills to conduct this assessment by themselves.

Social media users play a key role in the spread of misinformation, even unintentionally. At times, we might circulate news stories even though we have the suspicion they might be inaccurate or biased with the fear of not passing on information that could have been true and/or helpful, or just because we happen to agree with that side of the story.

Is this ethically correct?

Below, we analyse social media users’ responsibility in slowing down misinformation based on prominent ethical frameworks for better clarity.

Prominent Ethical frameworks

  1. Consequentialist framework

According to this philosophical framework, our decisions should be based on the predicted consequences of our actions. In this sense, before we act upon a piece of news on social media, we should analyse the pros and cons for all involved actors. In the context of misinformation, a post on social media might attract attention and give us popularity but might harm our beloved ones.

  1. Kant’s categorical imperative

This framework is popularly known as “I Cannot Tell a Lie”. It is our duty to decide on our actions as if they were to become a universal law. In the case of creation and/or spread of false information, should consider if it were okay for everyone to do the same. If everyone spread misinformation, we could not make any well-informed decisions and we would perceive a distorted reality.

  1. Virtue ethics

Central to this framework is the individual’s moral virtue. As we acquire virtue through practice according to Aristotle, as social media users, it is also our responsibility to fact-check before acting upon a piece of news.

Our Research

Through our work in EUNOMIA, we aim to shift the culture of “likes” in which we use social media focusing on trust, nudging social media users to prioritise critical engagement with online information before they act upon it.

To this end, we are developing a social media platform with added tools that help people develop information hygiene habits and protect each other against misinformation.

For more information on our work in this research area, please contact our team.

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