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Australians fear COVID-19 misinformation threat - study

Australians fear unchecked misinformation online could derails the country's COVID-19 vaccination efforts, and want to see greater transparency about the extent of the problem, new polling has found.

Reset Australia, an affiliate of a global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy, commissioned a YouGov poll to establish the level of concern among Australians about vaccine misinformation.

The results are overwhelming - 85% of respondents agreed misleading claims about a COVID-19 vaccine on social media would discourage Australians from being vaccinated. Meanwhile, 65% of those surveyed would like to see greater transparency from social media platforms about the extent of misinformation.

"We can't begin to plan a vaccine rollout without tackling vaccine misinformation online," says Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia.

"During the pandemic misinformation about COVID-19 was amplified by social media algorithms but public health officials had little visibility about the extent of the problem due to online echo chambers," he says.

"Social media has supercharged conspiracy theories and misinformation, pushing some of us into echo chambers where false information is all we see. Algorithms amplify the most sensationalist or conspiratorial content to keep us engaged and online longer, but that's often not factual or accurate information," Cooper explains.

"We all know misinformation is out there, but we don't have a bird's eye view of the scale of the problem. Only the platform's do - which is why they need to be compelled to list the most shared content about COVID-19," he says.

Reset Australia has been campaigning for a Live List, which would see digital platforms compelled to maintain a list of the most viral URLs being shared on the platforms.

This list could be used by public health officials, journalists,  and academics to effectively track and trace misinformation online and then better target public health messaging.

"Australian authorities and the Australian public should be able to answer questions like: What kind of content is being amplified by these platforms? Who made it? What kind of demographics are consuming it," says Cooper. 

"To do that we need a live list of the most contentious issues our society is facing, so we can begin to tackle misinformation collectively and transparently," he says.

"Tech giants have created platforms that produce both mega-profits and serious societal problems. If they accept the profits, they must also accept the oversight," Cooper adds.

Reset Australia says the poll was conducted in mid-December this year.