The coronavirus has been confirmed in over 180 countries across the world since it was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic due to its rapid spread. A few months later, the total number of cases has reached 1,425,468, with the US having the highest number of cases (395,612). This is followed by Spain (141,942), Italy (135,586), France (109,069), Germany (107,663), and China (81,740).
Accurate and reliable information about the virus is critical during this crisis to keep people safe and protected. Unfortunately, aside from the virus spreading worldwide, conspiracy theories, rumors, and misinformation are also making the rounds on social media. Experts see this as an inevitable result of lockdowns implemented by many governments where people are ordered to stay at home and observe self-quarantine.
Fake news and misinformation can spread around the world faster than the virus can -- and these can feed the fear, anxiety, and mental stress that many people are experiencing. As World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
The Rapid Spread of Fake News
Social media has been a powerful tool to spread information about the pandemic, especially about social distancing and self-quarantine. It is being used by governments, public health officials, and medical experts to inform people about the symptoms of COVID-19, where to get tested, what people should do if they’re getting tested, and more. Ultimately, social media has become a helpful tool to reinforce collective action among citizens.
Unfortunately, social media is a double-edged sword. While it is an effective platform to share important news to people, it is also conducive for the sharing of rumors and misinformation that can spread easily. For instance, there’s been a tweet circulating that claimed the US Army and the National Guard tanks are in San Diego to enforce the quarantine. But, several media organizations reported this as false. Many posts have also claimed that herbal medicines or alternative means can “cure” the virus. And people are believing these. Fakes news is not only harmful but also not helpful in the fight against the pandemic.
"Inaccurate information is rampant on the internet and in every social media. It is being spread by bots and by people who don't know it is inaccurate," Kathleen M. Carley, a professor in the School of Computer Science's Institute for Software Research and director of the Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity (IDeaS), said.
Research from Carley’s team showed that there are at least three categories of inaccurate or misleading stories about COVID-19: inaccurate information about cures or preventative measures, inaccurate information about the nature of the virus, and inaccurate information about the weaponization and bioengineering of the virus. According to Medical Xpress, a web-based medical and health news service that features the most comprehensive coverage, of all these types, false stories about cures and prevention are among the most widespread.
"It is easy to confuse satire with disinformation. The same story, 'drink bleach to cure coronavirus,' may be viewed as funny and obvious satire by one person and as truth by another. Spreading such satire because you think it is funny can be as destructive as spreading inaccurate information that you think is true,” Carley said.
Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences and founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, explained that people’s tendency to believe information that may be wrong or deceptive is driven by their fear and anxiety. They seek information not only because it helps make them feel better but also to reduce uncertainty. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, this also explains why conspiracy theories become so prominent in these modern times.
“I think social media communication is very much reflecting our fears and concerns with the virus, and this should be no surprise. As people struggle to learn more about it, to cope with the disruptions and seek to understand how they should deal with it, they are using social media to accomplish those goals and to express their fear and uncertainty,” Hancock said.
The WHO called this misinformation and fake news “infodemics,” which refers to an excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution. Infodemics not only spread misinformation, disinformation, and rumors during a health emergency but also hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people.
Avoiding Fake News and Misinformation
To fight the rapid spread of fake news, a team of WHO “mythbusters” is starting to work with many social media platforms and companies such as Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Tencent, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and more. They aim to counter the spread of rumors.
Meanwhile, the media is also aggressively filtering out unfounded medical advice, hoaxes and other false information that they say could risk public health. However, social media users should also do their part. Neil Walsh, UN Chief of Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering Section, stated that people should only get information from trusted sources, such as the WHO and the UN.
Additionally, Adrienne Ivory, associate professor of communication at Virginia Tech, said that users must be skeptical of social media posts about COVID-19. It would be helpful to always check the information they get about coronavirus prevention and treatment with official sources and pay attention to summary information in news stories, instead of individual anecdotes. "In addition to reading stories about individuals, pay attention to general information summarizing more broad populations (numbers of cases, rate of growth, hospitalization rates by age group) because it may be more relevant and representative,” she said.
In her Facebook post, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications Melissa Fleming also said that people need to urgently promote facts and science to overcome this pandemic. “My global communications team at the United Nations will be stepping up our communications efforts to make sure people have the best, most credible information and also inspiration from examples of global cooperation and viral acts of humanity,” she wrote.