In February, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO made a speech to the Munich Security Conference, highlighting the importance of accurate reporting on the emerging coronavirus. He noted “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” Conspiracy theories have been spreading like wildfire via WhatsApp, claiming to hold the secret to staving off the virus is drinking water every. 15 minutes. A circulating voice-note from an “army general“, announcing a full lockdown in Ireland. Horror stories about victims of the virus – all proven to be false. This is contributing to a sense of panic and emotional contagion is fuelling the fearful atmosphere. Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mentioned this outbreak of fake news during his address to the nation on 17th March, citing that it is our responsibility to circumvent the spread of misinformation.
Nowhere has this “infodemic” been more evident than on social media. Facebook have learned a lot since coming under fire for their part in the 2016 US election result. The spread of fake news on the site prompted widespread changes across Facebook’s ads and algorithms.To combat this recent influx of Covid-19 falsehoods, Instagram have introduced measures to prevent the spread of misinformation related to coronavirus. Certain hashtags have been restricted and a pop-up is being displayed when a user searches for #coronavirus, directing users to a reputable health source for verified information. This is welcome progress and shows that Facebook, Instagram’s parent company are treating fake news around the virus as a very real threat. Similarly, ads for face masks and other items have been banned from the platform, stopping people from capitalising on the frenzy surrounding the outbreak.
But the question remains, why are we so vulnerable to believing fake news? And what causes us to share this misinformation so widely? Humans are cognitive misers. We rely heavily on behavioural heuristics, seeking shortcuts in our thinking processes. In this current online culture, dattention is fractured and many may glance at a headline and assess a story’s validity in a split second. A 2016 study showed that 55% of site visitors will spend fewer than 15 seconds digesting an article online, which can lead to snap judgements and a failure to accurately analyse the information. Partisanship also feeds into our susceptibility to misinformation and we are more inclined to believe stories which support our worldview. This phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and works in tandem with selective exposure theory, which states that people tend to seek out information that confirms their personal beliefs. We all want to be right and confirmation bias means that we favour information that validates our own opinions. People fail to think analytically and these beliefs are fortified by our own personal filter bubbles, created via personalised and curated online spaces, which tend to show us news stories reflective of our existing beliefs and attitudes.
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was “Post-truth”, providing a definition that “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One of the primary reasons false information is spreading around the coronavirus is that it is tapping into the public’s emotions, which are being stoked by alarming reports in the media. The Journal.ie debunked a Whatsapp message claiming to be from Galway University Hospital, stating that petrol pumps were a major culprit in the spread of the virus. This story sounded just plausible enough, said to have originated from a healthcare worker and had no verifiable source. It was passed on by people concerned for others, and trusting that the information was correct. The best “fake news” often treads the line between truth and fiction.
In 2017, Claire Wardle effectively outlined the 7 distinct types of fake news:
- False connection – headlines, visuals that do not support the content.
- A decade-old map illustrating global air travel was used incorrectly by news websites across the world prompting headlines such as “Horrifying New Map shows no country is safe from coronavirus’ deadly tentacles”
- False content – genuine content shared with false contextual information.
- Claims that the water is now running clear in Venice are true. But some supporting imagery, including swans returning to the canals, were not taken in Venice.
- Manipulated content – genuine imagery manipulated to deceive.
- A post suggests that China has been cremating victims of the coronavirus en masse. Politifact have shown that there is no truth to that claim.
- Misleading content – misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual.
- Conspiracy theories have spread that the virus was bioengineered in a lab in Wuhan China, because the Wuhan Institute of Virology studies coronavirus in bats. Although it is true that researchers study these viruses, claims that coronavirus was man made are entirely false.
- Imposter content – genuine sources impersonated.
- Stories emerging from sources like Bloomberq and The Indepnedent are on the rise.
- Fabricated content – entirely false, designed to deceive and harm.
- The infamous Pizzagate
- Satire / Parody – Harmless.
- Tv’s Brasseye which echoed the current fake news climate with a quip “There’s no real evidence for [that], but it is scientific fact.”
Memory plays a part in the infiltration of fake news. Reading a fake news article can lead to a misattribution of the source of the information, and our brain may only retrieve the headline from memory. Recalling this memory will breed familiarity, making it more likely to stick in your mind. Repeated exposure to the falsehood may also increase the likelihood that you will believe it. A recent story regarding the dangers of ibuprofen for treating coronavirus springs to mind. This story was widely shared on social media and taken as fact because why would someone fabricate it? The World Health Organisation have since released a statement to say that there are no known side effects in using ibuprofen to treat the virus. However the constant exposure to this ibuprofen inaccuracy can cement the information as true and our collective memory will now likely recall the dangers of ibuprofen, rather than the verified WHO statement, because that story was reinforced so often through Whatsapp and social media.
Further steps are necessary to stem the deluge of hoax stories. More investment in third party verification is badly needed. Sites like Snopes.com and Politifact are helping to refute fake news from around the globe but the sheer volume of misinformation requires a depth of fact checkers to keep up, and is outside of the scope of their small teams. Facebook have been labelling posts to determine accuracy which is a surefire barrier, but again, manpower will dictate the volume of posts which can be reviewed and labelled. Crowdsourcing information verification has been found to be an effective way of fact checking social media posts and could be easily implemented by the social media giants as an interim strategy. TheJournal.ie have been doing excellent work locally in deconstructing fake news stories in Ireland and providing in depth reports to educate the public on how to identify false claims. Dublin City University are also invested in tackling fake news with a large scale project underway called Provenance which will look at processes to verify misleading online articles. The horizon looks bright and hopefully we will see increased fact checking in months to come.
Facebook’s response to coronavirus misinformation has been a hugely positive development however findings from a 2018 study note that fake news has the power to spread more quickly and more widely than the truth. The tweet above illustrates the very real threat of fake news and the propensity for these stories to be weaponised in an already polarised political landscape. So what can we do in the short term? Checking sources is paramount – where is the story originating from? Are they a verified news source? Can you find a similar report on another reputable news site? Ask yourself who is benefitting from this content being circulated? SOMA – the European Observatory Against Disinformation released a blog post recently to highlight the circulating misleading stories. They stated “conspiracy theories related to the origins of this virus have been created. Some of these have been translated and shared by websites that are known for profiting on disinformation. Others have been, unfortunately, spread by legitimate news outlets.” This shows that no one is immune to falling for misleading information. It is all of our responsibilities to check sources and think critically to combat fake news.