Fake news in the wake of COVID-19

Fake news is now at the heart of modern society. With the number of stories covering any single news topic online to date, it is imperative that when reading headlines, statements or ‘facts’, you cross-reference the claims made against other news sources you’ve looked up and verified yourself.

Be it from different websites, newspapers, radio stations or journalist’s Twitter feeds. The key is to identify multiple sources that are all confirming the same claim. Not that this problem of verifying news’ legitimacy should be left to the consumer at all. But without the proper systems in place within the world of online reporting, this is a good tech habit to get in to. We know just how impactful fake news can be from Trump and Brexit.

Fake news is ‘false information that is published as news for fraudulent or politically motivated purposes.’ But would you be able to identify it if popped up on your newsfeed? The Coronavirus crisis has only made this phenomenon worse. Research from Carnegie Mellon University found 45% of more than 200-million Tweets regarding COVID-19 have been published by bots or fake accounts.

The distribution of misinformation online is a dangerous tool of controlling people’s perception of events. Not only for the confusion it causes, but for the destructive real-world effects it can have. Even slight misunderstandings driven by fake news surrounding Coronavirus have led to sizeable repercussions for businesses. Corona Beer has lost £132 million since the pandemic broke out, while Asian restaurants in Chinatown experienced reported dips in custom of over 40% before lockdown was officially enforced.

And the financial impact is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the outbreak, incidences of verbal and physical abuse against people of “Oriental” appearance have increased dramatically, with the MET recording 166 incidences during February and March, an increase of more than 150% from the same timeframe last year. Fake news surrounding the instalment and setup of new 5G networks around the UK, claimed that as the ‘actual reason’ for the national lockdown. Which an alarming 30% of people said they “still saw as fact”.

The sheer volume of fake news being generated and circulated online has created a general aura of mistrust among the general public. Especially among those who are less tech-confident, who may feel the best response is withdrawing from news consumption significantly, or altogether.

It is hard to make a judgement call on which is worse, fake news? Or no news? I would say we need not settle for either. Neither will do. For now, you can combat these issues and identify what’s fake by verifying your news from a multiplicity of sources to confidently stay in the know.

The internet, social media, and widespread smartphone ownership, all allow for instant connectivity and, whether the news is fake or not, it can reach audiences around the globe at the click of a button. Local Governments need to be able to reach their constituents with correct information regarding COVID-19, protesting and the reopening of businesses and services. Verifying the information you are consuming, especially if it is sensationalist or grandiose in claims, facts and figures, is now more important than ever before.

Government outlets need to establish an effective line of communication that holds more legitimacy than the source(s) of fake information that, worryingly, so many people buy into nowadays. This task, and that of how to control the posting and sharing of fake news online is one government, platform providers and internet institutions must start undertaking themselves. Free from underlying agendas. But that’s a different conversation.

Benjamin Dewhirst

Policy and Admin Assistant, Urban IQ Ltd.

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Trees for Schools

Climate catastrophe is the greatest challenge we face. On a smaller scale, school pupils in city schools need cleaner air. Put these two challenges together and our best answer is the tree. Trees are probably our best defence against climate change. They capture carbon and remove other pollutants as they grow. They can also have a direct influence on pollution levels in the area they are planted. We need to plant far more of them.

In the UK we used to know this, but nowadays we have a low base to work from with only 47 trees per person, while neighbours France and Ireland have over three times this. In Europe, only the Netherlands appears to have fewer trees per person than us.[1]

The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that 30,000 hectares of trees be planted every year but the government seems to have done little to address this. In 2018/19 the UK planted just 13,400 hectares of woodland, the majority of which was in Scotland.

Planting more trees should be a great and relatively quick fix but it does need to be done soon, really soon, to meet our climate change commitments and improve our health.

One suggestion in speeding this up is a series of public nudge programmes, like the “Plant a Tree in 73” campaign, that responded to a large depletion of trees caused by Dutch Elm disease and led to individuals planting hundreds of thousands of trees.

Engaging children in school projects is another way. It is often a great way to get information back into families and communities. A project starting with planting trees in school playgrounds could kick start a national debate and a larger tree planting programme. Given the air quality around many city schools, children in those schools would benefit from having pollutant removing trees around their school perimeter.

In the UK there are over thirty-two thousand schools including some four thousand nurseries and early-learning centres. If each of these planted 4 trees in their playground, that would be over 130,000 trees. Since typical tree densities range from 1000 to 2500 per hectare the 4 trees per school would be the equivalent of planting between 52 and 130 hectares of land. While this is a tiny project it will help also provide cleaner air, green space, greater biodiversity and nature projects for pupils.

I suggested just four trees per school as a minimum knowing that many city nurseries have only small play areas. However many secondary schools (especially those in the independent sector) have playing fields, playgrounds and car parks that could accommodate hundreds of trees around their borders and perimeters to provide carbon capture for the nation and clean air for pupils. On a sliding scale, with independent schools planting an average of 100 and state secondary schools planting 75 down to nurseries just planting 4 each, the contribution from schools could be in the region of eight hundred thousand trees providing the equivalent of between 320 and 800 hectares of trees. Not a bad contribution to the national target.

Liz Fenton

Director, Urban IQ Ltd.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/tree-density/ and – Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature, volume, 25, pp.201–205 (10 September 2015) https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14967

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Time to try a new approach

Everyone now accepts that the UK is not training enough doctors, nurses and other health specialist to cover its needs, and that exit from the EU is likely to make everything worse. The NHS and private healthcare providers trawl the world, including developing countries to recruit people. We also export hundreds of trained doctors and nurses each year: some returning home, others wanting a less stressed and more lucrative job abroad, and others indulging a little wanderlust via globally welcome qualifications.

On the other side of the equation we have many people in the UK wanting to train in medical professions but each year straight A’s students are turned down from the very limited places available.

Why has one of the richest countries in the world decided that it is too expensive to train more doctors and nurses and instead spends time hunting through the world for more staff?

If we look globally there is little excuse for this. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are only 1.13 doctors for every 1,000 people in the world today with over 44% of WHO Member States reporting less than 1 physician per 1000 population. Comparing figures is not always accurate as countries have different definitions and don’t report at the same time but relatively recent figures from the World Bank give numbers of physicians per 1000 population ranging from Cuba with 7.5 and Monaco on 6.6 down to 0.8 in India and as low as 0.1 in a number of countries including Mozambique, Senegal and Zimbabwe.

Against these figures the UK has a modest 2.8, lower than the European and Central Asian average of 3.4 and the Euro zone average of 3.9. This rate is feared to worsen once the UK leaves the European Union.

So what are the solutions?

The government has said it will increase the number of university places by 25% over coming years and this can only help. However, this could be increased and complimented by looking to a country like Cuba that already trains many people as doctors and exports its own doctors around the world. Training costs would be cheaper; the funding beneficial to the Cuban economy and the courses there might be particularly attractive to some students dreading class ridden training in the UK.

Likewise the Philippines has huge programmes for training nurses to travel abroad and again could train UK nurses more cheaply while benefiting its own economy. These are just two areas to look at there are more.

Clearly links would need to be built between UK educators and those abroad and part of the training would still need to be done in the UK but paying for UK students to be trained abroad has to be more ethical than pocketing trained staff from countries in greater need than ourselves.


Liz Fenton

Director, Urban IQ Ltd

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