Since early February, fake news content surrounding Covid-19 has flooded the Internet. Citizens all over the world, trying to figure out how to face the crisis and protect their families, are turning to WhatsApp, Facebook, and videos/audios shared by friends with information on healthcare. While social media giants and news outlets try to tackle the problem, we keep sharing and resending messages, voice notes, texts, advice, content. We’ve had fake news disasters before, yes, but not many related to healthcare and none at all coming from the users themselves. Covid-19, a pandemic according to the World Health Organization, has prompted a new problem—fake news spread and made by average citizens.
Starting in 2016, the United States faced the spread and pervasiveness of fake news connected to the Kremlin intervening in favor of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. False videos and images on Hilary Clinton portrayed her as a danger to the country, and an untrustworthy individual. From then on, Facebook and other social media platforms struggled to contain hate speech and false information in their services. Facebook finally banned some extremist figures that were spreading fake news in May of last year (read Facebook’s ban on extremist figures is not enough to stop fake news, we need more.)
Still, all those fake news scandals were directly tied to someone specifically. Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, spearheaded multiple fake news campaigns, while Russia made sure lies about the Democrats flooded the platforms. As such, news outlets and tech companies had concrete institutions to tackle.
The fake news catastrophe prompted by Covid-19 is different. Everyone is sharing, reading, and reposting. We are the ones creating fake news and sending, not a foreign government or an individual with an agenda. Compared to other types of misinformation campaigns, grassroots content is much harder to contain, because it impacts everyone. It does not distinguish between right and left, Republican or Democrat.
As we try to figure out what to believe, we are in a dozen WhatsApp groups where information on the hospital crisis in Italy and Spain gets shared, where we see graphics on the exponential increase of infected patients. Most importantly, we turn to our peers in search of short-term remedies. Some of the information may be true, but much of it is not.
Last week, a friend’s relative had read that drinking Betadine (iodized antiseptic) could prevent the Covid-19 infection, and another still believes vinegar can guard its throat against the virus. According to a Pew Research Center report, 48% of U.S. adults say “they’ve been exposed to at least some made-up news and information related to the virus.” That’s half of the adult population. eMarketer said a few days ago that there were 19 million mentions related to the virus across blogs, online news, and social media platforms worldwide according to data from social media analytics platform Sprinklr.
Social media giants have taken action to contain this grassroots problem, as reported by Politico. Facebook has banned ads that promote the sale of medical face masks, and it has also tweaked its algorithm to boost official accounts. Google has increased the number of government alerts that show up in search results and deleted YouTube videos that encourage people not to get treated. Twitter has also highlighted official information. But still content keeps spreading, from us to our families and friends through social media services. In Spain, fake news is spreading like fire through WhatsApp. For that reason, social media and tech giants released a statement on March 16, reassuring its users they would do everything to fight inaccurate and false information. The note, signed by Facebook, Reddit, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Microsoft and LinkedIn, read:
— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) March 17, 2020
News outlets are also trying to fight misinformation. For example, The New York Times and The Washington Post are leaving their coronavirus coverage outside of the paywall so that everyone can access the information. Other outlets are updating the numbers continually, and all are providing original reporting. According to Pew Research, 70% of U.S. adults say the news media are doing very well (30%) or somewhat well (40%).
However, it would be unfair to assume that it’s only a grassroots problem. The current administration in the United States has not helped with the pandemic, as Donald Trump has claimed multiple times that the situation was “totally under control” and about to be shut down. In early March, Trump insisted that the death rate estimated by the WHO was false and that the U.S. would have a vaccine within months, as reported by NBC News. Trump’s comments were not true, but the media reported on them, creating further confusion among readers. (Moreover, Trump’s administration had already dismantled the government’s pandemic response force task in 2018.) The latest comment to make the news is Trump saying the FDA had approved chloroquine for use against C-19. It has not.
For now, the only thing we can do is try and keep informed through official channels or verified news outlets. Once the pandemic dies down in a few months, we will be left to fight with its long-term consequences, ranging from a loss of jobs to a loss of lives. In the meantime, social media giants and news outlets must safeguard readers from the misinformation they spread. And we must learn how to get informed, as inaccurate information regarding healthcare can be lethal.