Fake news in times of Coronavirus

We are living in strange times. Having school online, starting every email with »I hope you are healthy and safe«, not knowing when we will be able to see our friends again and our dogs already hiding from our family members for wanting to take them out twice a day, each. We might have wished for online, super technologically developed school a few ages ago, but hours of staring at our screens with zoom microphones shhhh-ing is definitely not what we meant. Days go by feeling like never-ending escalators. You can hear little kids, talking about corona being a failed experiment in Chinese laboratories or 5G causing covid-19 not even knowing where to place China on the map or what 5G is. We are told different news and predictions every day, there is an expectation that things are going to get worse before they get better and we are simply told to sit this one out. This is as an extraordinary moment for everyone as it has ever been and all of us are desperate to get a hold of information that we can trust. Live press conferences are viewed by millions, we are coming back to watching news and checking verified pages. But besides the media, there is a group of people that we do trust a lot – our friends and family. Our »fake and real filters« seem to have been damaged in this time since we keep being shared misinformation – with a good intention – but only ending up spreading fake news. Many of my friends proudly told me they do not have corona based on holding breath for 10 seconds or sunbathing- believing that vitamin D kills the virus. You cannot blame people for simply wanting to protect their health, but I can see how susceptible we are for accepting “anything that might work” as truth in times of crisis.

While researching for this article, I realised that I did not know who to trust. Internet revolutionised fake news whether we are talking about a rumour, intentional misinformation or biased, sloppy reporting – what would have circulated amongst a relative few can nowadays develop a global following overnight. In any case, believing that Ronaldo has been infected, or that the virus came from a failed biological experiment is not very consequential: it does not make a difference in how we behave. But there is other fake news that might be causing a lot more harm.

Social media platforms have connected with WHO and are thriving to crack down with this misinformation. Facebook and Instagram are responding very well, but if they can do this now, a question occurs, that is why did not they do it before? Will they keep doing it, once the corona situation is over?

The answer lies right in front of us. Big names might be putting their resources against fake news but what we seem to be forgetting is that Social media is just media. We are the ones spreading the news, we are creating the media. We are simply blaming the bots, while ignoring the fact that fake news is spread just and only by people.

Big media houses are having trouble providing their viewers with credible information, yet we see sharing posts on Facebook as necessary, from those with false advices, fake statistic or terribly sad stories »from a friend of a friend whose cousin works in a hospital«, simply concluding it tells the truth.The more shocking the post is, the faster it spreads. Everyone is complaining about how they cannot stand the news because everything they talk about is so negative, yet media houses reports show that as soon as the content switches from a negative story to a positive one, people tend to switch the channel. We are influenced easier than we think. Humans are by nature careful about the messages they receive. When evaluating information, we first compare what we are told, or we have read with our existing beliefs: if it fits, we tend to accept the information. Fake news takes advantage of this by reinforcing our prejudices: drinkers believe that alcohol is a cure, and racists blame Chinese scientists.

All of this places a lot of mistrust. Even that most emblematic of supposed panic reactions – stockpiling pasta or toilet paper – reflects a lack of trust. A lack of trust in the authorities’ promise that supply lines are sound and a lack of trust in others to refrain from stockpiling – which makes stockpiling rational for ourselves. But sometimes we forget where to draw the line – it is one thing to see pictures of empty shelves and be afraid whether you will be able to get food, but still a completely different case to be worried whether you should be eating lemons to stop coronavirus or not.

We all are worried about our health, our education, our economy… and the media is not helping make it better.

It seems to be more and more similar to the telephone game, hearing a more distorted version with each person it passes. But just as when you were a kid, you can always step out of the game – avoid clicking that share button and think critically. People want to tell you what to believe and if interests are working this hard to shape your opinion, their true goal might just be to put another layer between you and the truth.

Nastja Orel, 2.c