Last year, President Trump suggested bleach as a potential cure for the Covid-19 virus, saying it “knocks it out in a minute” – much to the confusion of the scientific community.

The online space has become somewhat of a war ground for misinformation. Fake news has always been a perennial problem in elections, but such campaigns during a pandemic can be a matter of life and death. How can governments build public trust and fight fake news?

GovInsider spoke to Professor Joshua Tucker, Co-Director of the Center for Social Media and Politics, New York University to understand how countries can prevent false information from derailing societies.

Consistency and transparency

In the past year, countries have been facing unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. When so little is known, governments face a public that is “hungry for information about what is happening”, Tucker says. Public trust and consistent communication needs to be strong.

This was echoed by Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister. “Being transparent and putting our clear, accurate information are important to allay people’s fears during the Coronavirus outbreak,” he told The Straits Times last year.

Public trust in governments can swing in either direction during the pandemic. For instance, trust in key Singaporean organisations rose during the pandemic, according to a survey of over 1000 locals conducted in 2021, The Straits Times reported. On the other hand, trust in the UK government for information on Covid-19 has declined significantly, reported Reuters Institute.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have found unique ways to communicate effectively with the public, said Sanjay Pradhan, Chief Executive Officer of the Open Government Partnership. They released models which showed the likelihood of intensive care units in hospitals being overwhelmed. Citizens were able to understand the severity of the virus and be more cooperative with Covid-19 measures.

Singapore has also launched a “VacciNation” information campaign to clarify citizens’ concerns on vaccines. This initiative makes use of traditional as well as digital platforms to extend their reach – including TikTok, Instagram and Telegram.

Regulating social media

Countries are also racing against the speed of social media. “We’ve always had fake news,” Tucker says. “What has changed is the ways that fake news can be spread.”

Social media has brought with it the ability for anybody to post information online, as well as the means for information to travel rapidly, he says. While governments can’t control what citizens post, the media platforms are taking measures to block misinformation.

Social media companies are using data analytics and AI to assist teams in breaking down the huge problem. They use a “Human in the Loop” approach – where AI will analyse social media posts and flag out problematic content. A person will then verify if it should be taken down.

These algorithms determine what appears in your personalised social media feed, Tucker says. Platforms like Facebook and Google “downweigh” information from less trustworthy sources to give them less visibility.

Facebook has also established a Covid-19 Information Centre to help users access accurate information about the pandemic. The page includes the latest updates on statistics and facts from leading health organisations.

Separating fact from fiction

One way to build citizen trust in local sources of information is to promote a “flourishing free press”, Tucker says. With a variety of sources to get reliable information, governments will be able to reach more citizens.

There needs to be a “shared understanding of truth”, he adds. Political polarisation in the USA has led to citizen distrust in the political system, where the left and right-wing media find it difficult to agree on common facts.

Citizens can also be taught to recognise misinformation on their own, he says. Finland teaches students as young as primary school to be able to recognise false information through different subjects, The Guardian reported. For instance, the students may learn how an image’s meaning is manipulated in art lessons, or analyse propaganda campaigns in history.

Tech has been a powerful enabler of media channels. As the pandemic places governments in the spotlight, they need to ensure that citizens can access critical information from reliable sources.