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Expert Blog: Navigating Fake News during the Coronavirus Crisis

Dr Lee Hadlington, Senior Lecturer in Cyberpsychology, discusses fake news in the context of the coronavirus crisis


The Internet offers us with the capacity to access a vast array of information at any one time, from current news stories, the latest blogs, opinion pieces, or just cute cat videos. The Internet also offers individuals a platform for expression, allowing anyone with access to it the chance to share their thoughts and feelings. We also don’t have to reveal our true identities, meaning that those who have extreme viewpoints, belong to marginalised groups, or those who feel stigmatised can still have a voice without fear of repercussions. Of course, all of this comes at a cost, and that relates to the quality of information that we see on a day-to-day basis.

Now, more than ever, we are seeing the proliferation of misinformation and ‘fake news’ directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organisation coined the term ‘Infodemic’ earlier this year to describe an epidemic, but not one related to biological causes, but rather technological ones. The term was used to highlight a global epidemic of misinformation, often proliferated and rapidly multiplying through social media networks around the world.

The infection starts with a small rumour, a myth, conspiracy or misattribution, and is quickly spread by contact through social media. The term ‘R naught’ (R0) is often referred to in the context of infectious diseases as an indication of how infectious that disease is – it tells you the average number of people who will catch the disease from one contagious person. In the context of misinformation for COVID-19, the R0 is only limited by the number of shares or likes that piece of information receives, and could be in the order of hundred, thousands, or even millions.

For example, a video posted on Twitter apparently showing thousands of people in Brooklyn, USA rapping along to the Notorious B.I.G. received 6.5 million retweets, and 20.7K likes. It later transgressed that it was in fact fake, but nonetheless shared numerous times. This instance highlights a common aspect of information sharing where there is an aspect of inherited credibility based on how popular something is, which links to a common decision-making process termed the ‘bandwagon effect’. The bandwagon effect is essentially what you would expect it to be – people jumping on the bandwagon because the information looks credible, fuelled by the belief that if lots of other people have shared it, it must be true.

This process has the benefit of allowing the individual to spend less time checking to see if the information is correct, but has the obvious downside of enabling information to be shared based on popularity, not accuracy. Admittedly, this sort of fake news does limited damage, and in fact arguably has a positive and uplifting message to be conveyed in these times of social and physical isolation. However, other forms of misinformation are not so innocuous, and can cause widespread panic, anxiety, and in some cases, actual physical harm.

The more nefarious and damaging aspects of fake news have also been widely circulated during the current pandemic. It often appears that these stories are attributed to an individual close to an official source, or with some inside information about the current crisis that no one else is party to. The main examples of these have been helpfully collected and dispelled on the BBC News website. Many of these stories have been linked to potential cures or the prevention of contracting COVID-19; on the surface, these stories would appear to do little harm, but if we delve deeper, we can see that in most cases, they do. Apart from the actual physical effects of engaging in some of these potential cures (for example drinking colloidal silver is NOT recommended as it has serious side effects) there is another, more damaging aspect; it prevents people from listening to or adhering to the official information. People worry that they are not getting the ‘full story’ from their respective governments or official bodies, which creates panic and distrust, making the communication of essential information a lot harder.

Misinformation and fake news tend to have some common elements;

  • They appear to be plausible and fit into our current knowledge framework e.g. garlic being a good measure of fighting off germs; vitamin C being a good preventative measure; steam or heat being an effective countermeasure against COVID-19
  • They are backed up by what appears to be attribution to an official source, or in lieu of this, someone that has links to an official source e.g. government, NHS, a keyworker, nurse, or doctor
  • They tap into existing fear or anxiety surrounding a current topic or crisis – this has been well noted in the conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 being linked to 5G in the past few weeks.

So what can we do to combat the threat of a global infodemic? Well, already, we have seen social media networks and news channels taking action to stem the flow of this type of information, which is a step in the right direction. However, in order to turn the tide against this virulent pathogen, we have to think about another form of social distancing. We need to do more in terms of checking the legitimacy of the information we see on social media, or material that is forwarded to us via Whatsapp.

Generally, this is easy to do, quick, and prevents us being the potential carrier of misinformation. Official websites such as the ones provided by the World Health Organisation and the UK Governments’ Department of Health and Social Care provide all of the essential, verified information we need when tackling the current crisis. We all have our part to play in the current infodemic, and the key action we can all take is to make sure we aren’t sharing misinformation: if it doesn’t look right, or sounds too good to be true, check it before sharing it!

Find out more about Dr Lee Hadlington's research.

Check here for the latest coronavirus advice and updates from NTU.

Expert Blog: Navigating Fake News during the Coronavirus Crisis

Published on 17 April 2020
  • Category: Research; School of Social Sciences

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