Fighting Fake News in COVID- 19 Infodemic

Author: Shradha Khanal

Truth has become a major victim of the Coronavirus pandemic. The global prevalence of disinformation has sidelined the genuine enforcement of public health guidelines. The circulation of fictitious articles disguised as real news online such as the sale of immunity-boosting products, relying on home remedies, state authorities claiming the virus as a Chinese hoax, advice for drinking bleach, and snorting cocaine cure to Coronavirus has misled people.

Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations states that the widespread dissemination of fake news of the COVID-19 virus has introduced “Infodemic” as the common enemy of the world. World Health Organization defines Infodemic as massive dissemination of inaccurate information misleading people from identifying trustworthy sources and needed reliable public health guidance. The popularity of fake news has caused mass panic, preventing people from making rational decisions during this crisis. In the grave condition of Pandemic,  social media platforms are aggravating the problem by hosting conspiracy theories, propaganda, and false information about COVID -19.

Falling for Fake News

Human history reveals that propaganda and fake news are nothing new. Homo sapiens are post-truth species whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Author Yuval Noah Harari in his book, “21 lessons for the 21st Century”, explains that in the post-truth era human quest of truth remains unfulfilled. In these circumstances, fake news remains disguised as truth. In the absence of factual information, people deal with everyday dilemmas relying on four methods of retrieving information, i.e. downsizing, touching human stories, conspiracy, and dogmas. Besides this, there are other reasons why people are prone to consuming a large number of fake news during this Pandemic.

At first, individual knowledge, illusion and confirmation bias motivates people into believing fake stories. It is not hard to agree that human brains work to every extent making available knowledge and belief stand out as the ultimate truth of this world. People rarely acknowledge their ignorance and comfort themselves inside the chamber of self-confirming news. Further, in the absence of factual information, people look for majority consensus information. Similarly, due to emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts, we fall for fake news.

Secondly, the pervasive power of group thinking undermines the individual rationality of people. For instance, people holding communist ideology have a similar stance in the matter of socio-economic structure that will differ from other ideologies.  Great power inevitably distorts the truth. The sources of fake news are a couple of vested agendas that have nothing to do with dealing with crisis rather than taking advantage of it. Every other power sells their agendas and tells lies. These lies, when shared million times, get validated as truth. 

Thirdly, unaccountability and unethical performance of social media platforms have caused the proliferation of fake news.  Popular platforms such as Facebook are the primary news source for millions of people. These platforms host content created by a third party and earns large numbers of revenue from each post. Due to this business orientation, they have lax policies on restricting fake news. In 2017, the spread of fake news about false massacres and other fake rumors against the Buddhist majority was spread on Facebook that caused the support for ethnic cleansing against Rohingyas. Facebook allowed such posts in its platform, even after user complaints, and due to limitations in human content reviewers, the situation went out of control. Intermediaries do not accept their shortcoming that only aggravates the situation. During the time of the Pandemic, internet intermediaries hold a greater responsibility to fight fake news with public health expert human content reviewers checking the credibility of news.

The Way Out

Taking reference to the 1998 Hollywood film, “The Truman Show”, Jim Carrey, the protagonist of the movie lives his entire life inside a staged show believing it to be real. In the end, Jim risks his life to find the end of this make-believe world and finally succeeds to exit.  The point is like Jim; we are given a choice to settle with fake news and remain in blissful ignorance. If we want authentic news, we need to walk extra miles. The public can take these steps of taking rational decisions while viewing COVID information online. Cross-checking recency and accuracy of COVID information from authentic sources like WHO. One can also report a misleading post to the platform administrators.

Most Asian countries have criminalized creating and disseminating fake news. This has resulted in banning sites and penalizing the content creators. This approach is not effective in reducing fake news rather in reverse has increased in popularity of such news. In the presence of undemocratic intentions in state authorities, such anti-fake laws enacting a legal duty of truth, can create a  powerful instrument to control journalistic activities. It can allow the states to decide on truth and silence those who disagree with that.

Platforms and states can collaborate in creating separate fact-checking body. WHO and significant platforms have carried the “myth buster” program to eliminate fake news. States can also contribute to such a program.

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