With tensions on the rise towards the latest vaccine developments and the winter months looming large, remaining vigilant of fake news in relation to the virus is critical.
As the country toils with life under lockdown for the second time this year, we are once again confined to spending more time indoors, looking at our screens and communicating online. We now live in a world where everyone has a voice and anyone can be an author, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.
Roughly two thirds of the UK now use social media, and each user spends almost two hours per day viewing its content. It is abundantly clear that what we see, read and hear online plays a fundamental role in how we view the world.
In the midst of a pandemic, our exposure to the “fake news infodemic” has never been more malignant. Much like a virus, fake news is born, spread, becomes viral, and mutates — striking an emotional chord with its audience as it manifests.
Covid-19 has become a unique target of fake news in 2020. The virus has exposed socioeconomic fragilities on a monumental scale. The UK has now recorded over 54,000 deaths, a shrinking economy has led to the financial ruin of businesses and a sharp rise in unemployment, and much still remains unknown about the science behind the virus. There is a great sense of unease in the air, and it is no surprise many people have fallen prey to an infodemic that spreads even faster than the virus itself.
From the outset, Covid-19 has been the subject of a plethora of fake news stories and theories — from its “bat soup” origins to 5G conspiracies. With multiple vaccines now being prepared for widespread roll-out, is it any wonder that this has become the latest focal point for fake news superspreaders?
Within hours of the news breaking about the effectiveness of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, social media was plagued with baseless comments, theories and memes suggesting that these life-saving innovations will purposely harm us.
To name a few from the “Covid-1984” storybook, false claims that the vaccines are part of a plot, led by Bill Gates, to microchip the population have been rekindled. Theories that they will in some way alter our DNA have gained traction too, and misleading or outright false allegations of vaccine side effects have been widely circulated.
Today, in a digital Wild West, it seems that anyone can be a scientist or medical expert.
And such vocal, unqualified opinions can do substantial damage. The spread of fake news is a largely emotive practice — one which targets and exploits people’s fear, vulnerabilities, and the unknown. An appeal to emotion over truth can often be more persuasive and more likely to spark a reaction than calmly laying out the facts. Sometimes, the truth can be boring, or at least less entertaining or emotionally triggering than fiction.
The government continues to deliberate new legislation to enhance the regulatory framework for a wide range of harmful content online in the UK, including fake news. But while we await to see the direction it will take on this, we can only guess whether it will be sufficient to adequately fight this infodemic. Fake news is an extraordinary threat — one which can often be harder to identify, track and validate.
So how do we flatten the infodemic curve?
This is not so much a freedom of speech issue, but rather a public health crisis that requires each of us to remain vigilant of fake news. While extensive and coordinated fake news campaigns have targeted other major issues, such as politics, much of the conspiracy theories spread about Covid stem from a grass-roots, user-created level. Asking ourselves questions when reading or sharing this content online can help stop the spread.
First, what is the source of what you are viewing? Whether you received the information from family, friends or colleagues, vet where they got it from.
Second, is it up-to-date? New developments, whether in relation to science or the government’s latest measures, are announced all the time. Ensure the information is still valid as you read.
Third, is there more behind the headline? According to various studies, roughly six out of 10 links shared on social media are never actually clicked on. Do not be misled by a provocative headline.
Fourth, is there supporting evidence for what you’re reading? Check whether the information has simply been taken out of context and whether reputable media or medical expert sources corroborate it.
Finally, are your own biases having an influence? Often we can be tempted to share a satirical image or quote that supports our own social or political views, regardless of its legitimacy. Even if you know it to be untrue, sharing this content may have an unwanted influence on others if you share it.
The UK is now hopeful of rolling out a vaccine to the most vulnerable within the coming weeks, with widespread provision by the spring. But as we secure victory in our fight to win the scientific battle, our fight against the infodemic continues. And the war is far from over.
Main image credit: Getty