The PEN Pod: Debunking Disinformation with Jane Lytvynenko
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Jane Lytvynenko, senior reporter at Buzzfeed who covers disinformation, security, and online investigations. With so much inaccurate information about the coronavirus floating around now and being shared throughout our networks, it can be hard to know how to tune out the noise and what we can and can’t share. We talked to Jane about the difference between disinformation and misinformation, what kinds of virus-related myths to be on the lookout for, and what you should share instead if you encounter false news.
What is it like working as a journalist right now, especially on the disinformation beat?
Oh, man, it is exhausting. I have been on this beat for about three years, and this is the most disinformation I’ve ever seen. There’s been nothing like it before.
What kinds of fake stories, particularly about coronavirus, are popping up right now, and how are they disseminating around the web?
There are a couple of big themes—one is fake cures, and the other one is fake lockdowns. With the fake cures, it’s a lot of supplement selling, coyly promising to boost your immune system. And you know exactly what they’re hinting at. It’s a lot of, you know, “Hold your breath for 10 seconds and if you can, that means you don’t have the coronavirus.” All false. And then on the flip side of that, we’re seeing a lot of false reports of cities that are getting shut down. It’s important to stress that the situation from city to city is very different. But what we are seeing is that globally, from country to country, it’s almost the same text being forwarded across group chats.
“Ultimately, it is all of us that are spreading this misinformation, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that all of us are going to fall for it. This isn’t some faraway problem that smart people can avoid.”
What’s the source of all of this?
Attribution, at the best of times, when it comes to disinformation, is difficult. We just have a really hard time figuring out where things come from because the Internet really thrives on anonymity. But what we do know is that the hoaxes that we’re seeing now are getting shared organically. What that means is it’s a person who’s really worried or anxious, who really wants to make sure that the people in their network—their friends, their family, anybody else in their life—is getting as up-to-date information as possible. And so, when they see something that really causes them panic or that might seem like useful information, even if it isn’t, they pass it on. So ultimately, it is all of us that are spreading this misinformation, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that all of us are going to fall for it. This isn’t some faraway problem that smart people can avoid. I myself have fallen for hoaxes and people around me have, too. It’s just a difficult time right now.
What’s the difference between disinformation with a D and misinformation with an M?
Disinformation is a deliberate spread of false information. Usually that’s the term we use for bad actors like the Russian, Saudi Arabians, Chinese, who are deliberately running disinformation campaigns, targeting people. Misinformation is what we use when somebody sees a piece of information and they’re forwarding it on, not necessarily knowing that it’s fake, or forwarding it on in good faith.
“The most important thing in preventing the spread of myths and disinformation is to be in touch with your mental health a little bit.”
What can people do to make sure they don’t accidentally share stories that aren’t true?
So if I can go to disinformation basics for a second, here’s what we know about the way it functions—it functions based on our emotions. It doesn’t necessarily function on facts. The reason why people share myths and disinformation, which we know from studies, is because of an anxiety, panic, or anger that myth or disinformation induces. So for us, the most important thing in preventing the spread of myths and disinformation is to be in touch with your mental health a little bit. And if you get something that is a copy and pasted message, or a voice memo that you received from a person that you don’t know, or a meme (which is just an image with text on top of it), or even a video where you don’t necessarily know the source, if it causes a spike in your anxiety, if your cortisol levels are through the roof, that is a good time to just take a deep breath—actually do it, take the physical deep breath—and say, “Alright, maybe the action that I should perform is not forwarding this onto my network, but Googling it real quick.” We have pretty much every debunker in the world on this story right now. And if there is a falsehood out there, chances are it’s been debunked. So instead of forwarding the bad information, forward the debunk to your network instead.
You’re in Toronto right now, which is experiencing a lockdown. In terms of being able to do your job and reporting, what does that mean for you?
Well, I grabbed all of my equipment and put it into tote bags last Thursday, brought it up to my attic, and set up an entire monitoring station—complete with two monitors, a laptop, and probably a lot more news than I should be processing. But mercifully, my roommate’s dog has been keeping me some very nice company.
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