The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) has been a super-spreader event of misinformation online, leading to an all-time high level of fake news online, according to a report of Tech.co late last year. The unprecedented rise of misinformation and disinformation online about the coronavirus started at the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
For instance, in April last year, the CoronaVirusFact Alliance database recorded nearly 4,000 coronavirus-related hoaxes circulating around the world. In the UK during the first week alone of the country’s lockdown last year, 46 percent of adults on the internet saw false or misleading information about Covid-19, according to a study by telecoms regulator Ofcom. In France just this March 2021, 58 percent of adults surveyed by Statista said that the media they consult the most have reported false information about the Covid 19 outbreak.
Even the US President Donald Trump said in October last year, without evidence, that recent spikes in Covid-19 cases throughout the US are a “fake news media conspiracy” and that reporting on them amounts to pre-election politics.
Fake news in this time of the coronavirus has become an increasingly pressing issue in news and media, resulting in confusion and harm among people, and a slowdown and even to the outright rejection of vaccination by the public.
According to fact-checker Boom in April 2020, most of the fake news were circulated with videos (35 percent), followed by text messages (29.4 percent) being shared with fake cures, treatments or quotes from celebrities, along with images (29.4 percent) that were either misrepresented or doctored. There was a small number of audio clips (2.2 percent) going viral with false contexts.
But why do people spread fake news about Covid-19, when all of us are affected by this menace? Let’s dissect the anatomy of fake news to further understand.
Fake news can be categorized in two quite different ways — misinformation and disinformation.
Misinformation involves misleading information, advice or statistics usually spread by well-meaning but ill-informed individuals. This type of information could be spread by governments or organizations releasing skewed data, or a family member wanting to help keep their loved ones safe by sharing information in social media. Examples of this include disputed causes of coronavirus, confusion over lockdown rules, and unproven coronavirus treatments.
Misinformation can be addressed by guiding citizens on how to fact-check and verify the news and its sources. Governments, organizations and family members should continuously educate their constituents and members on how to spot fake news and therefore not share or spread it.
On the other hand, disinformation is malicious and false information, aimed at disrupting public order or manipulating an agenda. Examples of this include news about coronavirus being a hoax or coronavirus as propaganda of government. Misinformation is made more dangerous due to the speed at which fake news spreads during a crisis, on social media or messaging platforms.
Since disinformation is deliberate as it is crafted by viperous groups or individuals aiming to sow belief among people. “They don’t need to win the factual argument to win the race to belief,” according to Mark Gray of the Canada Free Press. He further breaks down the structure of fake news to help us understand the motive behind it.
Fake news has three components – the claim, the frame, and the aim, according to Gray.
“The claim represents the false factual aspect of fake news, the frame emotionally guides perceptions towards the desired narrative (belief), and the aim is the ability of that information to reach a mind.” Furthermore, fake news is repeated by the purveyor in order to persuade, because after all, it works for real and fake news.
One example of fake news that spread like Covid-19 is the one that claimed the ingredients of a vaccines for Covid-19 could rewrite your DNA and embed microchips. This fake news was of the widely viewed videos on Facebook and YouTube in 2020 made by US-based osteopath Carrie Madej. Without giving any evidence, she also claims that these vaccines will link people up to an artificial intelligence interface.
The claim in this fake news is obviously the altering of the DNA and the microchip story, the frame is how Madej, in her video delivers the message powerfully and convincingly, and the aim is to gather a following, which it did in 2020, with thousands of believing followers. This fake news affected the acceptability and rollout of vaccination in certain parts of the world.
But this fake news has been debunked also last year, with pronouncements from medical practitioners and published studies revealing evidence that the claims were not true.
There is more fake news being manufactured and spread out there. Some are spread out of ignorance, while others through malicious intent. We need to stop its fabrication and distribution, and understanding how they are structured is one big step to detect them and consequently stop them.
The author is the founder and chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.