back to article How do we combat mass global misinformation? How about making the internet a little harder to use

A friend recently texted me in a panic from Florida, where he’d been consoling relatives following a death in the family. Those relatives had returned a positive COVID-19 test, then a negative test. My friend was exposed to them, so got his own test. It came back negative. His relatives were tested again. Negative. What should …


            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

              "Rather than teach people to not be intensely jealous when they see someone else have it better then them (like a child), instead change the rules so that no one can appear to have it better than anyone else."

              Well, legitimacy of children becomes important for legal reasons (inheritance, for starters). Also, jealousy of a rival tends to go to instinct and thus is HARD to teach out (I mean, the picture of your rival marrying and having successful kids instead of you hits home). If you can't teach it out, the next best thing is to cover it up before envy starts fights...

        1. Pete B

          Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

          "Once the belief that reality can be different for individuals... "

          Once you get into Relational Quantum Mechanics this is taken as a given!

      1. Flak

        Add: Who benefits?

        To me, that is one of the key questions and will in most cases shed light on the other points in your list.

        If you don't know the answer, keep digging. If it does not become clear, that should be a warning sign in itself.

        Follow the money...

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

        "I was lucky enough to be deliberately taught critical thinking during History GCSE"

        Which is why I think the Yes (Prime) Minister Diaries should be set books in English. Amusing enough to catch interest (unlike the Jane Austin etc on which I failed English Litt) and enough to provoke a critical look at "authority".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Valid but with caveats

      How many trusted sites are behind paywalls now, but spam propaganda sites open and heavily SEO'd?

      It's very related to the subject of the article, and its a big problem.

      They can check the top ten sites on their search engines and all will be spam propaganda sometimes, with little actually readable data from real websites.

      I use to use Qwant, but it was unusable during the US elections. Results were heavily spammed with political propaganda websites, some literally two months old. It's not just the US elections, Belarus Democracy protests returned attack sites denouncing the protestors, Wikipedia on Belarus, the official website etc. but almost nothing of actual detail on the state of protests.

      I had to abandon Qwant, too vulnerable to spam during critical times. I note it seems to be cleaner now, but too late.

      How many websites now have their walls up:

      You click a link and the website says "you are in privacy mode.... login to ..." nope, bye.

      Or "prove you are not a robot by selecting..." nope bye.

      "Wait while cloudflare checks your brows...." nope bye.

      "You have reached your limit for free articles, come back tomorrow..." er, no thanks I won't.

      It's self defeating. They could put generic ads on their web pages since I'm in privacy mode, instead they block or set puzzles or whatever. But I opened the top twenty links on the search engine in twenty tabs ready to look for information, I won't wait for their obstacles. After a while, users learn simply to never visit the problem sites, and save themselves even the click. They don't even get to push generic ads to me.

      But fewer clicks, mean lower rankings and over time the website slips down and down the search engine rankings.

      And you end up with a world of spam on your search engines. The search engines everyone uses double check their data.

      But yes, I agree with the basic DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING, apply some common sense. These are good tenets to live by, I just wish the proper news sites would realize that eyeballs are everything and if they lose the volume, they lose the cream with it.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

      I'm really surprised that you're surprised. People have always believed external sources, since the times when that mammoth kill happened out of their own, personal sight (it fought like hell, but then, our glorious leader took a mighty swing and killed the beast, etc.)

      HOW do you expect anyone can personally verify how many people really got the jab (jab, what jab?!), or whether 2,500 people really have become a part of a business deal today (by being kicked out of their jobs)? How are they supposed to verify that those smiling, well-spoken leaders they voted for, are lying cunts (other than, by default, assuming that all politicians are lying cunts), unless they happen to be directly hit by those lies? How can they verify ryanair lies to them (other than assuming it's a default ryanair mode), and how can they verify that the ICO supposed to chase scam callers did their job, other than by pretending to do their job by producing a fat, 464pages pdf file to show they did? Etc.

      On top of the rather obvious fact that people are stupid AND lazy and the avalanche of conflicting information comes from their mobile, computer and telly, all at once. But all this is moot, "This is the world we live in..."

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

        But before the internet you could trust it is tribal elder said eating mammoth with cloven hoof make sky God mad, now people are expected to do their own research

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

          [...] now people are expected to do their own research [...]"

          Misinformation is a tribal shibboleth. If you want/need to belong to that tribe then you have to pay at least lip service to their shibboleths. Better still - proselytise to show people (and yourself) how loyal you are to the tribe.

          Doing your own "research" often means going to your tribe's leaders and asking them what you should believe.

          A young friend with a penchant for reason and facts joined a university Christian debating group. He finally realised he had hit a brick wall when a young lady smiled sweetly and said "The Devil sends people like you to test our faith".

          A neighbour pursued the idea of Creation in conversation. I outlined the argument of "The Creator Recursion" and "Occam's Razor". A few days later she dropped a small booklet through the door. Her religion's official explanation about how their god created everything - and they were the chosen few who would go to an afterlife.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

      Being "Intar-web Street-Wise" is *THE* solution.

      "A sucker born every minute" - and twice as likely on-line.

      Here's what _I_ think: Question _EVERYTHING_, especially when EVERYONE *APPEARS* TO BE SAYING THE SAME THING...

      The only protection, for you, from "Teh Intarwebs", is YOUR BRAIN.

      (but of course, THIS assumes that INDiVIDUALS are personally responsible for their OWN lives, and lacks an elitist point of view that "the elites" should be "making it safe" for "the prols" because they're not smart enough to do it for themselves)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

        Well, what about those who don't HAVE brains? No man is an island, after all. How do you fix Stupid before Stupid takes the rest of us with them?

    4. CrackedNoggin Bronze badge

      Re: Trust nothing, check your data, use various sources.

      Mostly, I think, they think they've 'discovered' it. The confirmation criterion for their discovery is that it's something they didn't know a few minutes earlier, a dopamine rush, alignment with subconscious prejudices and desires, and the instictive appeal groupthink. It's not so hard to understand WHY that happens. Looking back through history it clearly isn't a new phenomena. Even in staid science, occasionally a researcher will be led astray the same underlying forces.

  1. Wellyboot Silver badge

    Teach people?

    Do you spend more time online or typing than hand writing? We teach hand writing from an early age because that ability is the second of two ways (talking is the other one*) we communicate, we generally don't teach typing, expecting everyone to pick it up as they go because its just another way of writing.

    Search engines are 'the' way most people interact with the world these days, maybe we should start teaching a few pertinent subjects as standard from an early age such as critical thinking, conjecture not being evidence, biased language etc. as part of the language curriculum. The power of language is why 'The pen is mightier than the sword', we have to think our way past conspiracy theories because censorship is a really slippery slope.

    Cynically I think it'll never happen, the politicos who'd make these decisions would have to up their game to include rational well thought out arguments instead of knee jerk phrasing and innuendo.

    *please don't raise mime to being a valid communication method.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Teach people?

      How about interpretive dance?

      More seriously, we changed the driving test to include some satnav type details.

      It's far past time we started teaching "Internet survival" in school. It's obvious that most parents aren't - or more likely can't - do that.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: Teach people?

        interpretive dance?

        Isn't that just mime to music 8^)

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: Teach people?

        @Richard. After removing time wasting rubbish first so the poor teachers have time in curriculum to teach critical thinking

        1. Glen 1 Silver badge

          Re: Teach people?

          "removing time wasting rubbish"

          One persons rubbish is another persons trigonometry/history

          Personally, I think civil rights movements (eg BLM) are important enough to be taught about in schools. However some of them come under the heading of "Sociology" and is therefore sneered at by some.

      3. MJI Silver badge

        Re: Teach people?

        I do not want to take another driving test. (Hopefully will be OK to when I stop)

        Drive by satnav.

        "I am just going to get my sledgehammer"

        Driving on wrong side of road

        "Never done it in 40 years, stupid idea"

        There are so many driving things I never do and will not do, don't test me on them.

      4. 2+2=5 Silver badge

        Re: Teach people?

        > It's far past time we started teaching "Internet survival" in school.

        It's ironic that in a thread about the importance of doing your own research you post an un-researched claim ;-)

        UK Primary schools have been teaching about the Internet and how to use it safely for several years now, as part of the PSHE element of the National Curriculum. From page 19 which covers Media literacy & digital resilience:

        For key stage 1 (age 5-6) the learning objectives are:

        L7. about how the internet and digital devices can be used safely to find things out and to communicate with others

        L8. about the role of the internet in everyday life

        L9. that not all information seen online is true

        and for key stage 2 (age 7-10):

        L6. about the different groups that make up their community; what living in a community means

        L7. to value the different contributions that people and groups make to the community

        L8. about diversity: what it means; the benefits of living in a diverse community; about valuing diversity within communities

        L9. about stereotypes; how they can negatively influence behaviours and attitudes towards others; strategies for challenging stereotypes

        L10. about prejudice; how to recognise behaviours/actions which discriminate against others; ways of responding to it if witnessed or experienced

        L11. recognise ways in which the internet and social media can be used both positively and negatively

        L12. how to assess the reliability of sources of information online; and how to make safe, reliable choices from search results

        L13. about some of the different ways information and data is shared and used online, including for commercial purposes

        L14. about how information on the internet is ranked, selected and targeted at specific individuals and groups; that connected devices can share information

        L15. recognise things appropriate to share and things that should not be shared on social media; rules surrounding distribution of images

        L16. about how text and images in the media and on social media can be manipulated or invented; strategies to evaluate the reliability of sources and identify misinformation

        This is clearly an ambitious set of topics but they provide a foundation for secondary schools to build on.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Teach people?

          Statutory from Sept 2020. (Though I'm not certain how much is completely new and what was there last year)

          In other words, it's barely started yet. Possibly not at all, given the current situation!

          It's a start. Way too late, but a start nonetheless.

      5. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

        Re: Teach people?

        "It's far past time we started teaching "Internet survival" in school."

        My kids were learning that from their first year in school. They called it internet safety then, but within a couple of years it became how to question stuff and query sources. It's just a normal state school so I presume it's standard syllabus stuff - in the UK that is.

  2. Chris Miller

    It's like someone has never heard of Google Scholar for searching academic results.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Aye, there's nothing quite as useful as an 'Academic result' when all you see in most cases is a hundred-word preamble paragraph leading to a ridiculously priced pdf of the actual paper... and in many cases you have no idea as to whether the paper is actually what you were looking for in the first place, or one of the dozens of 'meta studies' that just add up other scholars papers.

      Elsevier and their ilk should be ashamed of themselves. ArXiv is to be commended.

      1. RockBurner

        Just because it's a published academic particle, doesn't mean it's relevant. Academia has evolved to be somewhat self-serving.

        1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

          Academia has it's own problems - I've been reading papers for years, essentially the writers have a viewpoint that they believe is supported by evidence and while this is normally correct and the evidence is good, it don't mean that their viewpoint is accurate. Academics are not normally engineers or technicians and so things can occur when the data is being collected that they have no ideas about.

          1. sreynolds

            Yeah they are behind a giant paywall for one. Remeber schwartz? Wasn't the Theranos "technology" based on peer reviewed research?

            1. sreynolds

              Academia is more of a cult. They seem to worship people.

              Also, the need to publish means that they recycle other stuff a lot. Not to mention that it takes you a long time to learn the lingo of a new field.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            "Academics are not normally engineers or technicians and so things can occur when the data is being collected that they have no ideas about."

            People are people. There are a large number of apparently rational technical people who have no desire to look below the surface of the abstraction that suits them. Their favourite idea is always the one they will shoehorn into the current problem. They don't ignore things wilfully - it is just the way they are wired.

            A colleague was renowned for doing that on software bugs. One day they gave me a lift in their car. Often at a "Give Way" junction - they would turn their head in the direction of potential crossing traffic - while closing their eyes.

  3. don't you hate it when you lose your account Silver badge

    The death of Google search

    For me, was when I realised people were typing in there own names in the hope of some sort of emotional boost.

    1. DwarfPants

      Re: The death of Google search

      My reason for googling myself is to make sure I don't appear.

      Mine is the one with the turned up collar and the Fedora.

      1. My-Handle Silver badge

        Re: The death of Google search

        This one's mine -->>

      2. Beeblebrox
        Black Helicopters

        Re: The death of Google search

        "My reason for googling myself is to make sure I don't appear."

        Now you are recorded in their search logs.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The death of Google search

        > My reason for googling myself is to make sure I don't appear.

        I'm currently in a job search so I Google myself to see what some HR droid might turn up. Fortunately, as of late, I'm either a mayor or an entertainer. In years past, before a high school reunion, searches for myself came up with more, um, interesting things like felony convictions or being a male p0rn star. Or I've died. (Any of those would have made for an interesting reunion experience.)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The death of Google search

      It was kind of fun when I came top on a search for my name, but that was 16 years ago. Still my sentence is nearly served so I will be noteworthy again soon enough.

  4. Whitter

    Blind spots

    "It’s harder to anticipate blind spots that only become apparent in moments of greatest need. "

    Harder still to 'spot' those you never, erm, spot, 'cos they're blind spots.

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: Blind spots

      @Whitter: See CS Lewis essay: "In Praise of old Books"

      1. Danny 2 Silver badge

        Re: Blind spots

        CS Lewis essay: "In Praise of old Books"

        It looks like there aren't many great matches for your search

        Tip Try using words that might appear on the page that you’re looking for. For example, 'cake recipes' instead of 'how to make a cake'.

        Need help? Take a look at other tips for searching on Google.

        Now I want cake.

      2. CuChulainn

        Re: Blind spots

        It works a lot better if you use the search term C S Lewis essays In Praise of old Books though.

  5. Charlie Clark Silver badge


    More fluff from Pesce. Presumably he's being paid by some kind of company to promote the benefits of curation.

    Now, when we need to find something of vital importance, we can’t.

    But we can. Want to find out about PCR tests? Why not use the curated resources of the CDC? NB. I used Google to find the website of the CDC. Whether it's possible for most people to understand things like test sensitivity, etc. is another matter.

    Google became more popular than Yahoo, Altavista, Excite, etc. precisely because it wasn't "curated". It proved itself more reliable than the pay-to-pay services. And SEO spam (mainly for porn and dodgy medicines) has been around as long as search engines have. Google has a vested interest in weeding out poor results as a way to demonstrate that its suitability for advertisters. But, as long as there is a market for quackery, there will be a supply.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Strawman

      More fluff from Pesce.

      Quite possibly.

      "so I typed the following into a search box: “WHO PCR COVID test accuracy”...and got back a tsunami of conspiracy and antivax propaganda."

      That certainly isn't true for me. The first page of search results I get are from the BMJ,, the Lancet,, and the UK and Scottish goverments. With the possible exception of the last two :-) none of them are known for conspiracy theories or antivax bullshit.

      1. FlamingDeath Silver badge

        Re: Strawman

        What a strange perspective

        It can also be said that “Amnesty International” for most people, is not known for conspiracy theories, and yet they collaborated the Nayirah testimony which was complete fabrication by the daughter of a kuwaiti diplomat.

        What you’re doing is known as “appealing to authority”

        These established institutions you hold so highly, they contain people right?

        I dont hold people to such high regards, I think they’re snakes if given half the chance

      2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: Strawman

        That certainly isn't true for me. The first page of search results I get are from the BMJ,, the Lancet,, and the UK and Scottish goverments. With the possible exception of the last two :-) none of them are known for conspiracy theories or antivax bullshit.

        But are you any wiser as to why a PCR test showed different results? Luckily we have 'fact checkers'-

        A recent memo from the World Health Organization designed for lab professionals became a major focus of misinformation — with unreliable websites and social media users claiming the agency had changed a testing protocol and admitted that COVID-19 cases have been wildly inflated.

        But neither of those claims is accurate.

        So obviously the person is both positive and negative. And out of pocket for a couple of tests. And negative tests are now becoming a thing in order to travel across borders. Or get a fancy Covid passport because you've tested negative, or been vaccinated.

        But 'fact check' helpfully links to the WHO memo that helped spark the controversy-

        WHO guidance Diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 states that careful interpretation of weak positive results is needed (1). The cycle threshold (Ct) needed to detect virus is inversely proportional to the patient’s viral load. Where test results do not correspond with the clinical presentation, a new specimen should be taken and retested using the same or different NAT technology.

        And factcheck interprets that as a memo to RTFM, and does a bit of a gish-gallop around the issues. Which is another rabbit hole. So the media has spent the last year confusing people, and running daily killcounts, or 'case' counts. A 'case' is a positive test result, rather than a sick person, which is the more normal definition. So with contradictory results, the person's confused. Or possibly in trouble if a positive result means mandatory isolation and they risk large fines for breaking quarantine. Or messes up data if it's a false positive. But the issue is this-

        The cycle threshold (Ct) needed to detect virus is inversely proportional to the patient’s viral load

        So the more cycles, the more sensitive the test. Or a positive result with fewer cycles would indicate a high viral load. Which would also tend to indicate the person is infected/infectious. But run a high Ct and you'll get more positive results, but may indicate a low, or very low viral load, which may just mean someone's been exposed to the virus, but not infected/infectious. 'factcheck' rather glosses over that point, and is arguably misinformation.

        It also doesn't mention other legitimate concerns, or dismisses them out of hand. So one issue is that apparently test results aren't returned with the Ct value used, so don't really give any indication of potential viral load. But we know that Covid is both highly contagious, and relatively low risk in most of the population. So someone may have had a bit of a cold, recovered, later been tested and then forced to quarantine simply because they've got remnants of Covid RNA, but aren't a 'case' by conventional definition.

        But such is politics. Factcheck somehow gets promoted in search results, even though they're providing misinformation and conspiracy theories. But to understand the debate, you'd have to do some homework to understand how PCR testing works, and the implications of using a high Ct when that's a well-known risk to generating false positives.

        Which really leaves the question of how to get people to understand that 'fact checking' sites may be mistaken.. Which is a bit like wiki. They're not reliable sources, although can be a handy place to get some background information-

        1. yetanotheraoc

          Re: Strawman

          So fact checking is bad. Gotcha.

      3. RM Myers Silver badge

        "...none of them are known for conspiracy theories or antivax bullshit."

        Unfortunately, you are very wrong. Wakefield's original paper on vaccines and autism was published in the Lancet. and not retracted until lyears after a conflict of interest was found and the other co-authors had disavowed the results

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Strawman

      Nothing "fluff" about it. The search engines are losing the battle on noise. Because they refuse to hire enough people to actually monitor the traffic and content and instead think algorithms and result limits can recreate discretion and reason.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Strawman

        >Because they refuse to hire enough people to actually monitor the traffic

        We should employ Google operators just like in the days of 'directory enquiries'

        Of course with 40,000 queries/second you might have a bit of a wait - but it would solve unemployment

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Strawman

          "[...] just like in the days of 'directory enquiries'"

          ...and no doubt they would charge you a 118 eye-watering fee for the look-up - plus a hefty per-minute charge while you read the pages.

  6. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    Sounds like a search bubble effect

    If you regularly search for rubbish Google will give you rubbish.

    1. slimshady76

      Re: Sounds like a search bubble effect

      I used to consider myself a pretty good Google searcher. This changes a few years ago, when the chocolate factory switched from ranking results with a few key words (i. e. "lava tunnel formation" versus "how is a lava tunnel built?") and then again last year, when the double quotes started to be useful to rank some word/expression higher than the rest.

      What I'm seeing as results from every search is a switch from literal interpretation of the input to a more emotional one. As in when searching for a given topic you get news about what happened to somebody/how the topic affected someone, instead of the facts about that topic.

      I call that the "social pollution" of the search results.

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Sounds like a search bubble effect

        There's "social pollution", and then there's the "shopping pollution" of search results, where instead of returning informationabout something, a search on that thing returns a dozen different shopping links for that thing.

  7. Danny 2 Silver badge

    Brilliant article

    In the early '90s my peers considered me smart because I read books and remembered things. Search engines ruined that, equalised it and externalised memory. I couldn't tell you my phone number now.

    I first emailed Danah Boyd in '96 or '97. I was an uber-geek at the time, impressed by her Difranco song lyric site and bored shitless by my Cisco NMS SI&T day jobbie. She sent me a nice reply. I next emailed her a year ago when I learned she'd become a techie guru. She didn't reply but she's put so much online that it's kept me busy catching up. Wonderful woman, total star-bar.


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