A recent article published by a postdoctoral researcher, Samantha Vanderslott, addressed a very real issue we all face today: Fake news.
The proliferation of fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic has been labeled a dangerous “infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily today through the internet, social media and instant messaging (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger). These messages may contain falsified, incorrect or even harmful information and/or advice. This false content can hamper the public health response and add to social disorder, division and enhanced emotional stress.
Confusingly some fake news also contains a mixture of correct information, which makes it difficult to spot what is true and accurate. Fake news may also be shared by trusted friends and family, including those who are doctors and nurses. They might not have read the full story before sharing or just glanced over it. Before you decide to share, make sure to read stories properly and follow some checks to determine the accuracy.
If the story appears to claim a much higher level of certainty in its advice and arguments than other stories, this is questionable. People will be seeking certainty in a time of high uncertainty, anxiety and panic. So, it is only natural to more readily accept information that resolves, reassures and provides easy solutions – unfortunately, often in a false way.
Similarly, if a story is more surprising or upsetting than other stories it is worth double-checking, as fake news will try to grab your attention by being more exaggerated than real stories.
Why do people create fake news?
It can be anyone – an unknown person in a coffee shop or a tech-savvy computer geek working in a back room. Someone whose name will never be known. (That’s the beauty of the Internet: it lets people stay anonymous.)
Why do they do this? People who invent fake news may do it for a multitude of reasons:
- Out of hatred, spite or jealousy;
- For entertainment:
- To get revenge, teach someone a lesson;
- For political reasons;
- To promote an ideology;
- To harm a business competitor or an industry;
- To promote products;
- But especially because it pays!
Fake news pays!
The main reason for inventing it is to make money! You have to understand that on the Internet, popular news means advertisement revenue. The more clicks on a page, the more the advertising on the page is seen. The more it is seen, the more revenue for the page’s administrators. This is a very sad, darker reality of social media.
In light of helping to identify fake news and minimising the spread, there are ongoing conversations with internet giants and social media companies. However, there is no clear answer on how to regulate this false content for now and until such time, the best way to combat fake news is for us, the readers, to assert ourselves with better knowledge and scrutinising power of what we deem as ‘true’.
Why does fake news spread so fast?
Thousands of people circulate false stories and information every second of every day. Now, these are not necessarily people with malicious intent who know that they are doing harm, instead, these are people who are preyed upon and seduced by captivating content that they believe is true. Why? Perhaps because eye-popping headlines in our social media feeds make it easier for us to share content than evaluate or even read it. This, unfortunately, creates a viral storm of sound bites without substance.
Another contributing factor for why fake news spreads, according to The Pew Research Centre, is something called ‘confirmation bias’. Simply put, this means that we are more likely to accept information that confirms our beliefs and dismiss information that does not.
Some may believe that fake news and information have no real consequence especially if it does not directly cost us money. However, the result of all this misinformation isn’t simply ignorance. It can also provoke serious consequences in how we absorb, assess and define the world we live in.
Tips on how to identify Fake News
- Question the source: References have been made to “Taiwanese experts” or “Japanese doctors” or “Stanford University” during the outbreak. Check on official websites if stories are repeated there. If a source is “a friend of a friend”, this is a rumour unless you also know the person directly.
- Logo: Check whether any organisation’s logo used in the message looks the same as on the official website.
- Bad English: Credible journalists and organisations are less likely to make repeated spelling and grammar mistakes. Also, anything written entirely in capital letters or containing a lot of exclamation marks should raise your suspicions.
- Pretend social media accounts: Some fake accounts mimic the real thing. For example, the unofficial Twitter handle @BBCNewsTonight, which was made to look like the legitimate @BBCNews account, shared a fake story about the actor Daniel Radcliffe testing positive for coronavirus. Media platforms try to remove or flag fake accounts and stories as well as verify real ones. Look out for what their policies are to try to do this.
- Over-encouragement to share: Be wary if the message presses you to share – this is how viral messaging works.
- Use fact-checking websites: Websites such as APFactCheck and Full Fact highlight common fake news stories. You can also use a search engine to look up the title of the article to see if it has been identified as fake news by the mainstream media.
What information should we trust?
The best sources to go to for health information about COVID-19 are government health websites and the World Health Organisation website. Primary sources are generally better than news articles.
Even though government messaging and even the mainstream media can get things wrong sometimes, they are more trustworthy than unverified sources on social media and viral messaging.
Charlatans have been promoting false preventions and cures for people to spend their money on. For example, the New York attorney general has had to send cease and desist notices for claims that toothpaste, dietary supplements and creams will prevent and cure COVID-19.
The effects can also be more serious than losing some cash. Iran has reported at least 44 people died from alcohol poisoning after drinking bootleg alcohol in a misguided attempt to cure COVID-19.
The facts remain that the most basic and correct advice given so far does not offer a miracle or special insight. These steps include:
- Wash your hands often (use hand sanitisers if you cannot),
- Avoid touching your face, and sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or a tissue (and throw it away in a bag-lined bin).
- Avoid crowds and public places, keep a sensible distance from people, and do not travel unless absolutely necessary and aligned to stipulated government regulations to minimise the spread.
Given the spread and impact of COVID-19, governments, around the world are introducing measures like travel bans and quarantines that need to be followed to protect the health of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
Together, we can end the spread of Covid-19 and that other virus called ‘Fake news’…
It’s true, we can all get caught out by fake news. Sometimes we see something online that really triggers our deepest emotions. It’s in this moment that we need to pause, take a deep breath and try to verify as far as possible if what we’ve heard or seen is in fact true or just a very salacious attempt to spread false information. If you cannot verify information through credible sources, then just don’t share it.
It’s time we start to think twice about the messages currently circulating and help guide our family and friends to decide what to trust. Remember, Fake News cannot spread without our help.
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