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Coronavirus: How Fake News Affects the COVID-19 Spread

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult to contain worldwide. Governments have been slow to respond in some countries, while in others people have not taken the virus as seriously as they should have. The virus continues to spread even in places where both people and government alike have been proactive.

One of the major problems in dealing with the virus has been information; it was slow to come from major health institutes and governments, and in that time plenty of misinformation spread quickly. For some reason, this information not only tends to circulate more but it also tends to be more believable even though it is essentially fake news.

What is Fake News?

According to German researcher Götz-Votteler of Friedrich–Alexander University, Fake news is any piece of information that is intended to be incorrect when published. The person creating this news is aware that it isn’t true, and deliberately publishes it any way. There is malicious intent behind it and if that intent can be proven and also shown to have caused significant damage to individuals, groups, or institutes, it can lead to legal action.

But why lie? What is the point of news if it isn’t correct? Fake news has a high rate of acceptability; no matter how far fetched it is, people tend to believe it. According to Vicario, M. D., Quattrociocchi, W., Scala, A., & Zollo, F. (2019). Polarization and Fake News, a person’s own personal biases play a great role in the acceptance of fake news. This is why it can be used as an effective tool to sway public opinion on a subject.

Let’s say you don’t like the color green. You read an article that says plants with green leaves cause cancer and you suddenly decide all the trees need to go. The truth might be that a particular plant has carcinogenic properties and the plant, coincidentally, has green leaves. This is an overly simplified example but our own likes and dislikes play a role in how we judge the trustworthiness of something and if our dislike for a thing is strong enough, we will overlook most other indicators that point to a different conclusion than the one we want to hear.

The Growth of Fake News

A few years ago, Fake News wasn’t a big problem. The blogging era made publishing anything and everything easy. There were conspiracy theory websites and blogs in plenty back then too but they struggled to gain an audience. The internet was a lot smaller in terms of reach, and not many platforms were available to amplify a single voice. The best MySpace did was become a place to share music.

That changed when sites like Twitter and Facebook grew in users, and became a popular advertising platform. It was also the time when Buzzfeed began publishing benign click-bait articles.

Click-bait didn’t hurt anyone when it first began; it was essentially an article with a title that promised big but under-delivered. It made you angry for clicking on it and reading through the whole thing, but it didn’t lie to you. It wanted you to click on it so the site could generate revenue. It did unearth a tendency in readers to want to read sensationalist news.

As click-bait changed form, and sites like Reddit grew, it became apparent that not many people read much past the headline. A lot of news outlets could just get away with lying in the headline and telling the truth in the footnotes.

Fake news existed elsewhere at the time; in tabloids, and in real, physical newspapers with poor reputations but a large circulation. The methods you see today are old, tried, and tested. They’ve simply been modified to fit the online platform.

Fake News and COVID-19

Fake news has been a particularly difficult problem to deal with along side the pandemic. It hasn’t limited itself to just bad medical advice. Instead, it’s manifested in the following forms;

  • Circulating conspiracy theories by using buzz words like biological warfare to describe the virus as an attack on [insert the country you don’t like here]
  • Downplaying the pandemic by referring to in tame terms such as ‘just a cold’ or ‘just the flu’
  • Really bad medical advice to help fight or cure a person infected with COVID-19 that is ineffective or dangerous
  • Claims a vaccine will be ready soon or is ready now and not being distributed on purpose
  • Over-exaggerated claims of how many are sick, and/or dead and that the numbers are being covered up
  • Calling the tests fake
  • Calling COVID-19 fake and an attempt to seize control and take away basic human liberty
  • Influential voices claiming the disease is an act of God against [insert whoever you don’t like here]

Fighting Fake News about COVID-19

Fighting fake news about the virus has been difficult because news that is correct has to be vetted heavily. The virus is a serious threat for everyone and spreading information that may not be completely accurate has an impact on the credibility of the news source. If the news source is a government department, it needs to be vetted all the more carefully.

What You Can Do NOW

To stay safe, and avoid falling for fake news, you should do the following;

  • Always check the source of the information, ask for one if it isn’t available. If information is shared over informal networks e.g., over chat groups or by word-of-mouth, ask for a reliable source for it.
  • Always refer to reliable sources like WHO and your local or national government bodies and disease control departments for information. Listen to them when they impose restrictions and follow through on them.
  • Understand that a Facebook post is not news or information even if the person posting it has a lot of followers or some other form of social clout. Likewise, your favorite YouTuber is also not qualified to give medical advice. Neither is your neighbor who knows someone who works in a hospital.
  • Cross-check any images you see claiming to be ‘official documents’. There was once a still from the once-popular TV show The Walking Dead used to show the ‘effects of an MRI scan’. People believed it until someone pointed out the AMC logo at the bottom right. Official documents that are meant to be released publicly are made available online or through official social media accounts. There is no need to share photos of them.
  • Remember that Photoshop and deepfakes are a thing. Images can be manipulated to look like something else, and people can be inserted into videos they were never in. This is where it can get trickier to identify fake news so be vigilant.
  • Look for multiple sources; if a certain claim has been made, check if other reliable news sources support it.
  • Check for official statements often. Don’t read summarized versions of important statements or read ones that are well written and that quote the statements within them so you can easily look up what they refer to yourself.
  • Know when you’re reading an ‘opinion piece’ or an ‘op-ed’, and when you’re reading something written by someone who is qualified about to talk about the topic. Op-eds can be written by anyone; medical professionals and non-medical professionals. They can write on any topic so look at who wrote what you’re reading before you believe it.
  • Report fake news when it crosses your path. Facebook and Twitter both have an option to report posts made on their respective platforms.
  • Talk to friends and family that are susceptible to believing dangerous information and help them learn how to identify fake news. If you’re having trouble trying to get senior family members to take the disease seriously, Lifehacker has a useful article on how to talk to them.

Anything else we’re missing, leave a comment please.

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