What is an Information Void?
Sometimes, a new thing happens which lots people want to know about. However, in the early stages of “a thing has happened which lots of people want to know about”, organisations haven’t had the time to produce good, accurate summaries of what happened. As such, it is hard to satiate the “I need to know about this topic” feeling (and this feeling can be quite pressing if the new thing is a horrifying deadly pandemic, or a new war).
In this situation people may be forced to search out sources atypical to them in order to get the knowledge they need, or they may be more likely than usual to accept what they’re told as true (to address their need). This less refined information can be accidentally false/biased (misinformation), or it can have intentionally been created to mislead (disinformation).
I refer to these situations as “Information Voids; when something major happens there is a gap in our knowledge about it that we’d like to plug. The void needs to be filled by whatever relevant information it can get.
The point to remember is:
- When an important new thing happens, people want to know about it
- Because it’s a new thing, there is not yet a good way to get information it
- People still need the information, so are more susceptible to information from less refined sources, which can be misleading (intentionally or otherwise)
Threat actors looking to manipulate people may exploit Information Voids to further their cause.
Real World Examples
A less obvious example of an Information Void leading to the spread of false information was the 2020 Beirut port explosion. This article by Coda Story details “How conspiracy theories surged after the Beirut explosion“, as world leaders, mainstream media, and social media users incorrectly identified the blast as an attack, linking it to political tension in the area.
Anecdotally, on the day I write this profile Russia invaded Ukraine. Here is a screenshot of my social media feed demonstrating some aspects of a naturally occurring Information Void:
- A person who wants to find information about the invasion, but doesn’t know where to look
- A person reporting that potentially inauthentic content is going viral on social media
- A person clarifying that some information they shared earlier was incorrect
Separately, this person is debunking individual pieces of misinformation they have seen on social media:
And other users realise they believed false information:
Staying Safe in an Information Void
Senior reporter for BBC News Rachel Schrarer shares two acronyms used to reduce the negative impact of an Information Void:
- Stop – take a breath, when things make us feel shocked, sad or angry we’re more likely to smash that share button without thinking. That impulse can be exploited
- Investigate the source – Are they a new account with hardly any followers? Do they reveal who they are? What else are they saying on their timeline? Are they coming from one specific perspective?
- Find better coverage – doesn’t have to be anything complicated, just a quick Google can let you know if this has been picked up by big media organisations which have legal and regulatory duties to be accurate, whether it’s disputed or if it’s already been fact-checked
- Trace the material back to its original context – real video, quotes and even scientific papers can be twisted to tell a different story. Ask yourself, was there a longer interview, are these pictures from a different conflict, is that what the data really shows?
- Ask Really? Could this really be true? Do I really believe this?
- Look for Evidence is your next stage. Who is the source or author? Can they be trusted? Why are they sharing this? What evidence do they have to support what they are saying?
- See if the evidence Adds up – do the dates, facts and figures all support the story or the claims being made?
- Finally Look around – are other sources carrying the story as well? Does this reflect what you are seeing elsewhere?
This is a Stage 2 profile. You can read more about Profile Stages here.