What responsibility should a blue tick come with on social media?

The blue tick next to someone's name on their social media profile might just mean they are who they say they are, but according to social media experts, it should come with responsibility and the understanding that views might be taken more seriously than others on the virtual stage. 

Newshub talked to social media and internet experts, and discussed whether social media platforms that reach millions of people should face penalties if they are constantly sharing false information.

Social media and Generation Z experts Lauren Meisner and Jordyn Christensen tell Newshub information coming from an account with a blue tick can create an illusion they hold more weight but that doesn't mean it's accurate. 

"Being verified doesn't mean someone is any more of an expert on a topic than a non-verified person," say Meisner and Christensen. 

"But being verified elevates your voice and people often assume you have more authority than the average person. Having a huge following or getting verified is a privilege and they have a duty to use their platform responsibly."

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker tells Newshub it's important people understand that because a social media account may have a blue tick, it does not mean they are sharing correct information. 

"Verification of accounts is for the person to say who they say they are - they are not verified sources of information."

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns allowed people around the world to connect the only way they could - using social media. However, this has led to a new wave of misinformation being spread throughout the internet, a problem New Zealand has only had to face since the pandemic began. 

"We didn't really have much misinformation targeted at New Zealanders prior to the COVID outbreak," Cocker says. 

According to Cocker, before the COVID pandemic there was misinformation floating around the internet but it wasn't so relevant to New Zealand. 

"We have started to see more misinformation specifically targeting New Zealand activities - specifically responding to what the Government is doing."

"There's definitely been a lot more - I'm not saying that it's out of hand, but it's gone from a thing that was talked about and happening in other places in the world, to being something that is directly relevant to New Zealanders."

Influencers and misinformation 

The freedom rallies that occurred worldwide a couple of weeks ago, but most notably in locked-down Sydney, put a spotlight on social media personalities or 'influencers' who attended the march, and yelled about their freedom via placards and Instagram stories. 

Australian media outlet Pedesterian.TV blasted a list of 20 influencers, including New Zealand's former hero Egg Boy, who either attended the protest or posted profusely about it on their platforms. 

Almost all of the people in this list are verified, and have millions of followers between them, meaning millions of people saw the anti-lockdown, anti-COVID, anti-vaccination messages they were posting. 

The Australian outlet accused the influencers of "feeding their followers unsafe advice that’s putting everyone at risk".

Cocker says when the spread of misinformation starts to put the public's health at risk, it becomes a problem. 

"There is harm caused to society by disrupting the public health messaging, and the systems that the Government is putting in place to protect everybody," he says.

"We always talk about harmful content, so harmful hate speech, harmful digital communications, harmful disinformation. At the point that something becomes harmful, then you need to have a formal response to it."

What should the 'formal response' be? 

Newshub asked experts if verified accounts should have their accounts unverified if they are reported too many times for promoting misinformation. 

Meisner and Christensen believe a penalty system would help combat the spread of misinformation. 

"Based on how quickly misinformation can spread, we think a penalty system would be a good step in helping these platforms moderate the spread of misinformation," they say. 

"Social media empowers people to believe that their opinion is valid, regardless of their level of expertise on the topic. If verified accounts were at risk of losing their blue tick we think it would definitely lead to more considered sharing."

Cocker says that whether an account is verified or not, there should be a punishment. 

"There absolutely should be penalties - firstly, not because people are reported a lot of times, but because people are in breach of the rules," he says.

"Facebook and Instagram have rules around misinformation and if people breach those, there should be punishment."

When it comes to removing verification of an account, Cocker says he is "more of a fan of removing their ability to use the platform if they share misinformation deliberately". 

What social media platforms are doing to combat misinformation

When the COVID pandemic struck, Facebook was quick to produce a pop-up that directs a user to a website explaining more about the virus whenever COVID-19 is mentioned on social media. They also employ third-party fact checkers, and flag posts that have been proven false. 

A example of a pop up that Facebook uses to fight misinformation.
A example of a pop up that Facebook uses to fight misinformation. Photo credit: Facebook

Cocker says we should be utilising these tools to "see how contested the information is, and then make a decision for yourself about the truth or falsity of it".

"There are a lot of posts flagged, lots of bits of information added by the social media companies where they might state 'this information is disputed', or 'this information has been proven false'. Use these tools," he says. 

Cocker, referring to himself as "the person who pushes them [social media platforms] all the time", says he "never accepts they are doing enough".

But he admits "when it comes to misinformation the platforms are doing more than we are as a society or Government".

"The big platforms have supported efforts to get accurate information out, and especially around COVID. Some of the value of their contributions to the marketing around public health measure 

is extraordinary, they deserve a shout out for that."

An example of Instagram providing correct information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
An example of Instagram providing correct information about the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo credit: Instagram

"There are other areas of misinformation I'd like to see them be a bit tougher on - race-based misinformation, misinformation about the history of New Zealand, that sort of thing. It would be good to be able to have processes to be able to address that."

A spokesperson for Facebook told Newshub they "do not allow anyone" to share misinformation on their platforms. 

“We don’t allow anyone, including verified Pages or Accounts, to share misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm or misinformation that has been debunked by public health experts.

"We have clear policies against misinformation and Pages, Groups or accounts who repeatedly breach these policies will be removed."

How can Kiwis protect themselves against misinformation? 

Cocker says one of the key areas we can protect ourselves from falsehoods is to not be responsible for sharing it ourselves. 

"Misinformation becomes a problem when we jump on and spread it. It then becomes widely spread and people who trust us then trust the information we spread."

He says it is important to not rely on information shared to you by other users of social media, but instead rely on legitimate sources of information.