From Pandemic to Infodemic

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2020 is generating the unimaginable and we, the public, are in constant search of answers to explain these surreal events. However, conflicting information surfaces regularly on the Internet, and misinformation is taking advantage of the growing mistrust and fear concerning coronavirus among online users. With fake news flourishing, it is even more difficult to access authoritative and reliable guidance about the virus, creating what the WHO has classified as an ‘infodemic’.

Our desire for simple ‘answers’ often fuels misinformation online.

In recent months, claims from unverified sources about coronavirus have been responsible for multiple deaths and conspiracies that have cost lives. The public longs for answers on what caused the virus, the detrimental impact it has on our health, and the possibility of a long-awaited vaccine. However, our desire for simple ‘answers’ often fuels misinformation online.   

Exposure to fake news has resulted in a major public health concern. People are avoiding hospital treatment after believing sources suggesting the virus is a hoax, taking medicines that aren’t scientifically proven to eliminate coronavirus and spreading anti-vaccine conspiracies which may deter crucial progress in finding a treatment.

Individuals followed President Trump’s suggestion of ingesting disinfectant, leading to multiple concerning incidents by Americans hoping to protect themselves from coronavirus. Since, Trump has claimed his comments were purely sarcastic. Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to prevent and treat malaria, was also described by President Trump as a ‘game-changer’ and has sparked widespread debate over the dangers of using such a drug to cure the virus.

The spread of this information without scientific basis has led to the death of Gary Lenius and left his wife, Wanda, hospitalised after mistaking a household chemical product containing chloroquine for the anti-malarial drug. Fake news has also been circulating on social media, imitating government texts advising people to stay at home, and falsely informing people they have been fined for breaking social distancing rules. Furthermore, people have gone as far as deceiving the public by selling unofficial testing kits advertised as FDA or CDC approved.

Confusion, fear and mistrust of the public are being utilised and exploited by social media monetisation.

Similarly, 5G conspiracies have also been at the heart of circulating fake news concerning the connection between 5G telecommunications and COVID-19. Arson attacks and assaults on staff have spiked since claims by US doctor Dr Thomas Cowan that 5G was poisoning body cells and excreting waste known as coronavirus. Shockingly, between March and April alone, there were 30 attempts of sabotage on BT infrastructure and 70 incidents on EE personnel in the UK, including setting fire to communication infrastructure used by emergency services and death threats. Videos emerging from Hong Kong appearing to show masses revolting against the network were in reality produced a year prior yet are responsible for inspiring vandalisation founded on fabricated grounds.

Ultimately, confronting fake news head-on is vital at a time where the confusion, fear and mistrust of the public are being utilised and exploited by social media monetisation. As a society, determining what is reliable and what can be rejected as untrustworthy information has never been more important than in 2020.  However, much remains to be done by social media companies in creating the necessary tools to fight fake news and conspiracy theories that have shaped our online virus. Partly, as the UK Parliament Committee Report published on the 21st July 2020 outlines, harmful misinformation is spread by advertising focused business models. With increased numbers of people engaging with monetised misleading information, the greater the incentive to continue distributing it online. Currently, there is no regulatory law coming into force until 2024, and only 1 in 10 posts are removed by social media companies themselves.

The existence of independent organisations that tackle fake news are the public’s greatest resource

However, the existence of independent organisations that tackle fake news are the public’s greatest resource when it comes to having confidence in the stories we read and subconsciously process. Consider this. When you next scroll through Facebook and share a post suggesting that the US is putting microchips in COVID-19 vaccines, stop, reflect and check. Infotagion, an organisation fighting disinformation about coronavirus clarifies and can help prevent the spread of misleading content by simply flagging trustworthy information. Similarly, Full Fact is an independent fact-checking team that exposes inaccurate information and statistics headlined in the newspapers we read every day and automatically trust as the truth.

Lastly, with young adults being the group most vulnerable to seeing misinformation online, Polis Analysis, provide highly fact-based political analysis to empower individuals and make a healthier democracy. By encouraging students to sign up for their free daily Polis Analysis briefings, access to impartial analysis, absent from the increasingly partisan media, has never been easier. 

What I ask of you as fellow students: remain wary of the information you see online and use the resources mentioned above before sharing news that may cause someone to ignore important symptoms or prevent necessary treatment. In the words of Full Fact, fake news ‘promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy’. Together we can change that. Together we can fight fake news.

Image: Elijah O’Donnell via Upslash.

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