• Coronavirus, Corrocher: “Institutions should use social media against fake news”

The Bocconi professor explains how to manage this ‘infodemic’. And the next ones

The information about coronavirus on social media has gone viral. And it must be handled as such, especially by healthcare institutions, which must - unlike so far -succeed in governing the phenomenon, instead of suffering it. Nicoletta Corrocher, professor of Economics of Innovation at Bocconi University of Milan, in the video proposed with her university, mentions as emblematic some contents that have gone around the social media: the penne lisce pasta left on empty shelves of besieged supermarkets; the Decalogue of the Ministry of Health; the video on Milan that doesn't stop.

Professor, you mentioned the WHO, for which the coronavirus is also the first ‘infodemic’ faced: what does it mean?
“That information on the disease has spread in the same viral way, with a ‘contagiousness’ that really resembles that of the virus itself. People have had immediate and open access to any kind of information. And this has had several effects. Some benefits, thanks also to the use of different registers: in the cases I mention in the video there is irony, institutional information that allows us to make decisions based on certain cardinal rules, a social communication. However, we have also seen the negative effects, with the widespread fake news. Not necessarily ‘malicious’, i.e. not produced in a conscious way as also happened in recent times (I’m referring to the recent elections in the USA), but still detrimental. In fact, in this case the problem of fake news spreading on social media - but not only there, it’s well to remember - has become enormous. Upstream there is the topic of the specific skills that people should have to talk about certain issues. When it comes to health, however, everyone feels involved, and therefore entitled to speak. And so uncontrolled rumours, or prejudices, spread, which don’t help to deal with emergency, or in any case new situations like the one we are experiencing.”

Once again, then, we must deal with the crux of fake news: but how?
“Again, I think we can’t lump everything together. Basically, the solution can’t be to limit the circulation of information, but it’s necessary to improve the quality of its content. On this issue, I don’t think that we should delegate the control of this quality to the operators of digital platforms. This would mean giving them a very great deal of power: who decides what is fake news or what is not? Instead, the institutions must intervene by bringing correct information to the social media.”

On the coronavirus, the Ministry of Health made an agreement with Twitter and Facebook so that they’d refer to the institutional website. But when the epidemic arrived in Italy, not many of the contents of the healthcare institutions ‘spread’ on the social media...
“This is the point. Institutions, in this case health and political institutions in particular, must learn to be more and better present on social media. Whether we like it or not, it’s there that most people get their information today. And instead, who has seen the WHO (World Health Organization) posts? Or those of the Italian National Institute of Health? Sometimes, we have even seen the absence of their social profiles, even though Twitter and especially Facebook are platforms that have existed for many years. In addition, it’s clear that we can’t just respond to fake news with good news: the fake one has much more power. Therefore the issue must be faced upstream.”

“Digital literacy should be a structural part of school curricula, at least from lower secondary schools on.”

So how do we change this situation?
As a professor of Economics of Innovation, I’ve analysed the diffusion of new technologies, especially ICTs, and their sustainability in different fields, studying their dynamics and their economic and social impacts. I’m more and more convinced that Italy needs a major digital literacy initiative on large scale. This is the first necessary action. The second action, as I said, is that institutions ride the social media wave, instead of being overwhelmed by it. But for this to happen, investments are necessary. Even in qualified personnel, who know how to make the best use of social media within the institutions. Otherwise, they’ll allow the ‘generators’ of fake news to exploit them: an increasingly frequent possibility, also because behind them there are specific economic incentives and the possibility of creating a large number of fake news at very low cost.”

Ultimately, how should institutions move to face the new situations like the one created by Covid-19?
“They should stop treating digital media, and social networks in particular, as the ‘Cinderella of information’: delegate the fundamental task of providing correct information - having also a great impact - to a single scientist who is very present on social media is not enough. So they should create engagement starting from their own content, rich in videos and infographics, clear and easy to understand. Use positive tones. But for all this, I repeat, investments are required. And they are required now, before having to face a new emergency: because when it explodes, as we have seen, there is no time to adapt in real time.”

You also call for a national digital literacy plan: what should it include?
“First of all, I think that, even before that, we have a general literacy problem: being able to distinguish authoritative and reliable news sources from those that are not is an issue also off line. I wonder how we can still post something with the typical foreword ‘I don't know if it's true, but in the meantime I share it’: each of us has to pay more attention to the information he or she spreads. As far as digital skills are concerned, I think the time has come to build them in schools. And not only with a few courses, as has been done for instance to address a very heart-felt issue such as the growing Cyberbullying. To be capable of ‘inhabiting’ digital spaces, it is necessary to develop transversal and long-term skills: a digital education should be a structural part of school curricula, if not in primary schools, for sure starting from lower secondary schools. When we talk about the digital agenda, therefore, we welcome the diffusion of broadband, but the system must also tackle this crux. This is the only way we can really shape the digital citizens of the future.
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