Take warm baths. Drink bleach. Sip water every 15 minutes. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.
Just three of those tips are actual, government-mandated advice (the latter). But chances are you’ve encountered the first three too, most likely through older relatives passing them on through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. They’re invariably prefaced with the words: “A doctor friend told me…”. And they may even have bled through to real life, with conversations over family dinner tables or snatched conversations across supermarket shelves.
“We have seen this before during disease outbreaks such as Ebola, H1N1 and the Zika virus,” says Johan Farkas, a researcher on fake news at Malmo University. “With COVID-19, it is happening on a global scale.”
The situation is so bad that the government launched a specialist unit to combat misinformation around coronavirus at the start of last week. The rapid response unit purportedly confronts fake news about coronavirus head-on, advising people on what they should actually do, rather than what some random message tells you.
“Sadly, fake news about the coronavirus pandemic is spreading nearly as fast as the disease itself,” says Charlotte Henry, author of Not Buying It: The Facts Behind Fake News. “Conspiracy theories are rife, most notably on WhatsApp. They usually refer to some second or third-hand information, but because we ultimately receive it from a friend or family member we are more likely to believe it.”
But how does it happen? And why does it spread? “Disinformation is grounded in emotional manipulation, and there’s plenty of emotion to manipulate during this crisis,” explains Nina Jankowicz, who researches disinformation at Washington DC-based think tank the Wilson Center. “We’re all worried for our health and the health of our loved ones. Our economic future is uncertain, too. Add to that a hunger for information about the virus, of which we have very little, and you have a perfect recipe for manipulation.”
Prior research by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that fake news travels six times faster than the truth on Twitter. According to the research, part of the reason it happens is that people see something that shocks or outrages them – or plucks at their heartstrings – and press the share button.
When talking about a global pandemic where information and safety is a priority, the stakes are even higher. People who think they’re doing good in sharing information to keep their friends and family members forewarned and forearmed could in fact be doing damage because they aren’t thinking critically about the source of the information, or the sense it makes. Unlike state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, much of the bad information around coronavirus doesn’t stem from a malicious source, but instead from people trying to help – but just not having the ability to separate fact from fiction. It’s an extension of age-old old wives’ tales.
But it has an impact. In recent years India has seen several people murdered by mobs as a result of rumours spread on WhatsApp without any verification. In response, WhatsApp limited the number of people an individual could forward messages to within the app to stop fake news from spreading quickly. This isn’t the same – no one is taking part in vigilantism – but the information spread through social media is affecting how people decide to live and try and tackle the spread of the coronavirus with potentially harmful results.
So what can you do to stop your older relatives from sharing information they think may do good, but is in fact doing harm? “We can all accidentally spread misinformation during a crisis,” says Farkas. “There is simply no way of completely avoiding it. We can, however, reduce the risk by being extra cautious of sources, especially on social media, and help out by sharing the latest information from health authorities.”
Mike Caulfield is a digital information literacy expert at Washington State University. He’s created a website, Infodemic.blog, which advises people to follow a four-step plan when encountering any information: SIFT. Caulfield advises people to stop when they feel strong responses to any information, and think. They can investigate the source of the information, then cross-check it with a search of news stories from reputable sources, tracing back claims and quotes to see where they come from. It’s similar to the work journalists do when they encounter information on a daily basis – but requires the general public to think more critically going forward.
The root problem is our media illiteracy as a nation – and as a global society. Many of us aren’t yet conditioned to recognise the difference between reputable and irreputable sources online – and that’s not just an age thing. There’s a difference between the BBC and less well thought of publications, between the Twitter account of a professional journalist and a random tweeter. We need media literacy training.
“In the west we’ve been slow to adopt these programs on a widespread basis, and they aren’t foolproof,” Jankowicz says. “There will still be portions of the population who buy into conspiracy theories and disinformation. But in the countries that have implemented them, they lead to a more civil, democratic discourse, which in and of itself is a good defence against disinformation.”
Jankowicz and Henry also point out that fake details spread in an information vacuum. Because of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s libertarian tendencies and a general lack of preparation, the UK government has been confusing in its public messaging. That allows half-truths (or outright lies) to spread.
“While there was always likely to be a tide of fake news in the face of crisis, government communication errors have helped it become quite so prevalent,” Henry says. “Where there is a voice of real information, misinformation fills its place. For instance, the briefings around herd immunity were disastrous and triggered many a conspiracy theory.”
“Along with transparent government communications and responsive governance,” says Jankowicz, “as well as a transformation in business models that allow vulnerable populations to be targeted with bad information online, a more informed citizenry can greatly improve the health of our information ecosystem.”