COVID-19 and the Spread of Fake News

24 Apr 2020 1:14 pm by Leela Bozonelis

In India¹, it has affected an entire swath of the population. It happened to the UK’s Boris Johnson², too. It happened in South Africa. And in Iran.

We’re talking, of course, about the spread of disinformation—the deliberate dissemination of misinformation as “credible” news—during the global COVID-19 crisis. Some commentators even coined a new term for the avalanche of fake news that has accompanied the pandemic: “disinfodemic.”

fake news covid

The rate at which this unreliable and downright false information is spreading has even sparked concerns that the phenomenon is putting lives at risk, according to the United Nations Educational³, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO. In fact, myth-busting is one of key messages behind the UN’s COVID-19 public health campaign. “Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself,” the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was quoted as saying. “It’s fears, rumours and stigma.”

Social Media: The Disease and the Cure

For all the benefits of interconnectedness that it brings, social media is the primary culprit behind the spread of fake news. In an article published back in 2017,Trolls, Bots and Fake News: The Dark and Mysterious World of Social Media Manipulation, Newsweek reported that fake social media accounts can produce as many as 1,000 social media posts a day.  Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—social media may also be the remedy to social media’s fake news infection rate. Why? By the end of 2019, 55 percent of Americans reported getting their news on social media “often” or “sometimes.” Many Western European residents get their news from social media, too, with Facebook in the lead. For better or worse, social media is an effective communications channel for reaching the masses.

The Role of Communications Professionals

Associate Professor and Chief Librarian at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Barbara Gray, refers to fact-checking as “a civic survival skill and duty in a ‘post-truth’ world.” And she couldn’t be more right.

When referencing anything for broad public dissemination, professional communicators must seriously consider—and, to an extent, be prepared to defend—the reliability of their sources and data. This is especially true for those who themselves serve as a resource to reporters. Here are a few ways to avoid the trap of mis- or disinformation.

1.   Fact-Check Like a Librarian: Chief Librarian Gray provides advice for fact-checking like a pro in Nexis®Solutions’ guide to fighting fake news. One of her tips? If the news seems unbelievable, it probably is. Trust your gut—and your brain. Start by asking yourself five simple questions:

  • Who says?
  • How do they know?
  • Are they biased?
  • Does this news turn up on trusted sites?
  • What don’t I know?

2.   Determine Source Credibility: The internet is chock full of potentially illuminating information from sources you’ve never encountered before. But passing the aforementioned gut-and-brain check doesn’t guarantee the validity and credibility of the publisher in question. This is especially true when searching news stories curated via social media feeds like Twitter. If the website where the story originally resides doesn’t end with .com, .org, .edu, .gov or a country-specific suffix such as .ca (Canada) or .de (Germany), proceed with caution. You’ll find more helpful tips for determining source credibility on the Nexis Blog.

3.   Cultivate Trust: Tools like Nexis® and Nexis Newsdesk™ can take some of the guesswork out of whether a story is reliable or has been published from a credible channel. But establishing trust in your research and reporting means checking for and citing evidence outside of the news media. Licensed data sources may provide you with company, legal and other information that may not be freely available by just searching the web. This level of deep research—going beyond Google—can cultivate trust, a key factor in stopping the spread of fake news.

What’s Next for Fake News?

As the examples above demonstrate, there’s nothing like a scary, global pandemic to bring out the worst in people, including those selling fake preventions and remedies, preying on our charitable instincts and promulgating fake and potentially dangerous “news.” But there is some hope on the horizon.

For its part, Facebook is attempting to stop the spread of fake news by alerting users who have interacted with fake content. The social media behemoth will direct impacted users to credible facts from sources like the World Health Organisation. With a bit of due diligence and the right tools at their disposal, communications professionals can, too.

Sources:

1. 200 Million Indian Muslims Vilified, now in the name of Covid-19, Countercurrents.org

2. Russian disinfo targets UK Prime Minister’s hospitalization, medium.com

3. During this coronavirus pandemic, ‘fake news’ is putting lives at risk: UNESCO, UNnews.org