Meet the Irish company that's tackling the fake news 'infodemic'

NewsWhip sees first hand how false news can result in people engaging in dangerous real-world behaviours

"They call it the infodemic." Paul Quigley, chief executive and co-founder of NewsWhip, knows all about the challenges of identifying trustworthy news online in the middle of a public health crisis.

An infodemic is, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an overabundance of information that occurs during an epidemic. With a fast-moving and fast-changing situation, the information is not always accurate, which can make it more difficult for people to find trustworthy sources.

And much like the virus itself, misinformation has spread rapidly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Misinformation is unintentional, it’s innocent; people are sharing things they believe to be true,” says Quigley. “Disinformation is more intentional, it’s often state-sponsored, and involves deliberately wanting to mislead populations about things. The disinformation world is global.”


That has an ongoing impact on public health. Fake news, “alternative facts”; call it what you will but the impact is being seen in the growing number of conspiracy theories that surround the ongoing pandemic. False health news can result in people engaging in dangerous real-world behaviours; managing the infodemic, therefore, is crucial.

It is something that Irish company NewsWhip has seen first hand. Its main business is in tracking the spread of news stories and narratives across the web and social networks, with its technology predicting the stories that are likely to go viral. Founded in 2011 by Andrew Mullaney and Quigley, the company has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

Although the company has a history of working with media organisations such as the Associated Press, Conde Nast and the Washington Post, its business goes beyond media publishers and PR agencies.

Among its NGO clients are Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, and lately, the WHO. The sector has the potential to become a more important part of NewsWhip's business. "Over 20 per cent of new business came from NGOs, universities, international organisation and even agencies doing anti-misinformation work. We've become a supplier in a big way to people at the front lines."


The WHO signed up with NewsWhip about half way through 2020, and the company has been working with the organisation since then to identify what the next false news narrative will be to capture the public imagination.

“They have a big interest and focus on defusing misinformation and knowing which ones to defuse,” says Quigley. “They’re all doing work focused on misinformation and countering the false narratives. The problem that we are solving for them is there are so many people saying untrue things on the internet, billions of people potentially spreading all kinds of things.

“They need to know which are the dominant narratives, and which ones are going to change people’s minds and go viral in the coming hours and days.”

Once the false stories have been identified the organisation knows where to focus its energy. Spokespeople can be briefed on the fake stories they will need to defuse.

When the crisis first kicked off the theories were more outlandish. Covid-19 was caused by 5G, it was claimed, and the vaccine was just a cover to microchip the population and control it.

But more danger comes not from easily disproved claims that provoke complete disbelief but the ones that could have a grain of truth. News of potential treatments for Covid-19 that have subsequently been abandoned, such as the use of hydroxychloroquine, has led to people self medicating, believing that it will protect them from serious illness. That has had some tragic consequences, with some of the more high-profile cases that made it to the news involving death and serious illness.

False news isn’t just a recent Covid-19 problem. Social networks have been forced to crack down on the spread of misinformation on their networks as the desire to connect the world was weaponised.

In 2016 it was an industry of clickfarms that had sprung up in Macedonia and other Eastern European countries to cash in on advertising that millions of clicks on fake news links brought in. In 2021 the landscape looks quite different.

"It's gone from 2016, where we noticed people were setting up these websites and trafficking misinformation or sensationalised stories to really bring in revenue for themselves," says Aisling McMahon, global head of onboarding and implementation for Newswhip.

“But now people are really seizing on it to push their own personal agenda, narrative or cause that they’re really interested in, so it’s just not people creating clickfarms to make money.”

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that with Covid little was known about the virus, and as we learned more recommendations have changed .

“It’s very complicated and with health things it is extra complicated because the advice evolves, the facts evolve, and our understanding evolves,” says Quigley.

It is why the partnership with the WHO has become even more important to NewsWhip and its staff.

"To be supporting an organisation like WHO, arguably the most important organisation in the world at the moment doing critical work with the pandemic, is fantastic for NewsWhip, and demonstrates the value in our technology and our strategy. It is also so rewarding to feel that we're playing some part in tackling one the biggest issues that the modern world has faced," says NewsWhip's commercial director Greg Keane.

"Organisations like WHO have multiple tools, but NewsWhip's real-time data, predictive insights and innovative crisis and research dashboards provide unique value to support their work on monitoring and researching crisis, and we were lucky enough to win their business and support their Africa regional teams based on this, in a highly competitive industry that we are part of."

Viral storm

Social media and its wide far-reaching impact has made that threat even more severe for NGOs, health organisations and even brands who can find themselves embroiled in an online viral storm that may have little basis in fact. But while well-timed intervention can help, equally important is to know when to leave well enough alone.

“With social media the entry level is low, and a narrative can take off very quickly with audiences. As the quote states, ‘a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’,” says Keane.

“It’s key for brands to be aware of these threats as soon as possible, and decide if action needs to be taken and what action is best. If a falsehood is out there and going to grow, action may be required. However, if something is not getting traction and may run its course naturally, the worst thing to do can be to bring more attention to it and essentially give it oxygen.”

Everyone likes to think they can sniff out a false story for themselves using a few common sense guidelines. But it’s not always as simple as that. There is the constantly shifting landscape to take into account. While there has been an effort on social media to tackle some misinformation, the ease with which new pages bearing the same bad information can reappear under another name poses a practical problem.

“One of the challenges is just trying to understand what the ecosystem of misinformation looks like,” says McMahon. “These websites often have names that sound either very reliable or have objective names that sound neutral. They’re mutating and changing all the time. The game is constantly changing.”


Media literacy also has a role to play here, but there are other factors to consider, including how we are accessing information.

“The advice is think about whether you recognise the source, and look for that information in other places, but it’s quite time-consuming, and the format you are on – for example, mobile – doesn’t always allow for that. You might be seeing a snippet of the information. Depending on how media literacy is, depending on the age group, people might not feel comfortable doing that,” says McMahon.

That is backed up by new research from Washington State University (WSU), which claims that how susceptible you are to misinformation online is linked not only to media literacy skills, but also how likely you are to trust information shared on social media. In this instance, a little scepticism can go a long way.

"The good news is that you are less susceptible to conspiracy theories if you have some media literacy skills, one of which is being able to identify misinformation. But if you blindly trust the information you find on social media, those skills might not be able to help," one of the report's author Prof Porismita Borah, an associate professor in WSU's Edward R. Murrow college of communication, said.

Education around social media may be the key to preventing people falling into social media conspiracy theories, something that is difficult to extricate yourself from once they have taken hold.

“There are different levels of danger with these theories, but one of the prominent conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19 is that it isn’t true, that the virus is a hoax and that can be really dangerous: you’re putting yourself, your family members and your community at risk,” said Prof Borah.

Closer to home, researchers at Trinity College Dublin have been tracking coverage of Covid-19. Prof Catherine Darker has been working on a research project looking at public engagement with public health messages that were delivered online through news and social content.

"Covid has generated enormous levels of coverage," said Prof Darker. Her project took in focus groups throughout the island of Ireland, and how they viewed various sources of information. The results are due to be published in a series of papers in the coming weeks, but there were some standout observations.

“A lot of people questioned the common sense approach of the behavioural guidelines. I think people really felt the hygiene practices, the social distancing, and those kinds of behaviours seemed a little small in their approach to being able to combat what is a very contagious virus,” she says.

“Some people were thinking it was almost like a David and Goliath scenario in terms of that the Covid was spreading so rapidly. People wanted to get some sense of what was the evidence and science that was supporting those recommendations.”


That was a few months ago before the vaccines were approved and before the current series of extended lockdowns that have hit the island. A year on from the start of the Covid pandemic, and the health authorities worldwide are now grappling with fatigue that has replaced the “we’re in it together” spirit, alongside the misinformation epidemic. Yet Prof Darker sees some cause for optimism.

“I think people are genuinely and generally quite altruistic, and I think there is a community spirit to this,” says Prof Darker. “I think the biggest antidote to Covid alongside the vaccine is the idea that we are all in this together.

“The moment we start picking out groups to either be angry at – young people, university students, people who protest – that’s when it becomes unhelpful and Covid can get another foothold.”