“There is so much information that people can't tell the difference between true and false.” Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft - a nonprofit active in verification - is pretty sure that the problem of online disinformation is bigger than we think. In an exclusive conversation via email with Blasting News, Wardle explained to us how to distinguish between false and true news, and how to navigate this COVID pandemic. She also talked about the 2020 United States presidential elections saying that “we're going to see a lot of misinformation in the next 90 days.” “The outlook will be really bleak”, she adds about the US. presidential elections.

As First Draft makes clear on its website, the World Health Organization is describing the Coronavirus pandemic as an infodemic. How powerful is the infodemic in affecting the course of the virus?

The infodemic is like a pandemic, there is so much information that people can't tell the difference between true and false. In terms of the course of the virus, it's very serious. The reason that people are sharing misinformation is because we don't have a clear sense of where the virus came from, we don't have a clear sense of a treatment, we don't have a vaccine, and we can't even agree whether or not masks work, even if we know they do. So, the information around the virus is having a huge impact on people's behavior and therefore whether or not the virus has been shut down in different countries.

How should people distinguish between legitimate news and a fake? What are some tools or tactics especially in our fast-paced world?

It is actually very, very complex. There are a number of very legitimate news sites and a lot of very illegitimate news sites, even though some people would argue that they are legitimate. It’s tricky. The question for users is to look if there is an About page, an address.

Is there a Wikipedia entry for them? Then you can get a sense of whether it's just a man in his bedroom, or if it is an actual - so-called - legitimate news site.

You have to make a distinction about whether or not you think that certain news outlets are legitimate. I might say that they are not, you might say they are so; that's the challenge when anybody can publish anything.

I would argue that you really want to use sites that other people, you trust from legacy news outlets, are talking about. For example, Axios is a new website but I would say it's very trustworthy. You can't just say is it an old website? Follow journalists that you trust and where they work.

And how can journalists better tackle the infodemic?

They can be much better at filling the data voids. Journalists should be looking at Google Trends to work out what people are confused by and then filling those gaps with explainers and evergreen content that helps people find quality information when they google it. They should do that as opposed to just reacting to every new press cycle; every new press release; every new update to a different drug, that actually is not helpful right now.

We need sustained explainers about all sorts of critical aspects of the virus.

On this note, how did First Draft take on the first few months of the pandemic?

We basically just started monitoring for misinformation globally. This is the kind of work that we do all the time. So we just set up a new number of keywords and started monitoring across different platforms in different countries.

On top of the COVID infodemic, the U.S. also had to wrangle with misinformation around Black Lives Matter and police brutality. What's your take on that?

The US has been wrangling with Black Lives Matter on police brutality, so of course, there has been a lot of misinformation around that. A lot of it has come from official sources, politicians and police chiefs.

So the challenge is difficult because you can no longer rely on certain sources. We are now seeing elites sharing misinformation in the same way as we see people online without a profile or a reputation.

Looking ahead to November 2020, could you tell us more about the new project you launched, “Protection from deception”? Do you think it will be translated into Italian too?

We created this SMS course (It’s a two-week text message course, one a day, to give “the knowledge and understanding you need to protect yourself and your community from online misinformation,” ndr.) We hope to translate it into multiple languages, we're just doing some testing now to see whether or not the course does make a difference. We want to make sure that it is having an impact.

We have had good qualitative feedback from users who seem to enjoy it. This is the first time we have really created content for the general public. We have normally just created training materials for journalists, so it's a bit of a new departure for us.

Regarding the impact of fake news circulated mostly through social media, what do you think the outlook is for the 2020 elections?

I think it is really really bleak. Very little has changed since 2016. There is going to be a lot of confusion because of COVID meaning there are going to be mail-in ballots, and there are going to be feared that voting locations are going to be dangerous. So you have got a double whammy of people being frightened to vote. It will be very easy to have a voter suppression campaign.

We will see ballot boxes in places that we shouldn't do; we'll see people spreading rumors that there will be harassment at the polls and the people won't be washing their hands and it will be dangerous. There is a rumor today that you have to mail in two weeks ahead of time, otherwise don’t bother. That’s not the case. So it's just an absolute disaster. We're going to see a lot of misinformation in the next 70 days. I'm pretty pessimistic when it comes to that.

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