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.