Fake news and misinformation are not a novel phenomenon linked exclusively to coronavirus. Laclau (2005) defines fake news as “a floating signifier, used by different and opposing, antagonistic, hegemonic political projects as part of a battle to impose the “right” viewpoint onto the world” (Farkas and Schou 2018:302). In that sense, fake news is a deeply politicized concept used to delegitimize political opponents and construct hegemony (Farkas and Schou 2018). Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that disinformation travels faster, deeper, and more broadly than real information in any category. So, how does this apply in the context of coronavirus?
Types of misinformation about coronavirus
Fake news about the virus can be divided into two categories. The first is misinformation which is “information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm” (Udupa et al 2020:4). This could be the circulation of rumors by citizens which reflects the public’s hopeless need to acquire information about something that causes great anxiety. Misinformation travels seamlessly on Whats-app given its personal proximity as messages seem to come from reliable sources such as family and friends. Such rumors have included information about the spread of the disease in regions where there are no registered cases or unverified home remedies to cure the virus which ranges from simply drinking water to drinking bleach and methanol. Some rumors claimed the virus will be eradicated by summer or spread false information about how the virus was contracted. The second category is disinformation which is “information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country” (Udupa et al 2020:4). Disinformation examples include accusations that some countries are not revealing the real number of cases identified or rumors that China found the “wonder drug” and is concealing it from the rest of the world. Baseless conspiracy theories suggesting the virus was invented in Chinese labs or is an American biological weapon are also popular. According to the Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos poll, 44% of Americans believe the pandemic spreads from certain minorities and organizations, 66% of those respondents believe China or Chinese citizens are to blame while 13% believe it was invented in China.
Findings from research conducted by Network Contagion Research Institute show a spike in conspiracy theories containing anti-Chinese sentiment and terms like “bioweapon”. The study also revealed an “acute increases in both the vitriol and magnitude of ethnic hate”. It also states that online misinformation might translate into real-life violence. Rising online hate speech , reflects a surge in Sinophobia and xenophobia against people of Asian descent and appearance around the world. Extreme speech related to coronavirus was also found to be on the rise, according to the research, a post on Instagram that called for shooting every Asian to eradicate the pandemic, was removed shortly after it was posted. While slurs rose in time near the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, researchers also reported a second rise when President Trump’s tweeted “Chinese Virus” on Twitter.
Who are the agents of disinformation and why they spread it?
States and political parties spread disinformation campaigns and propaganda as means to manipulate the public and manufacture false consensus to serve their agendas. On May 1st, Donald Trump claimed to possess evidence that proves China manufactured the virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Despite his refrainment from revealing the evidence, which makes his declaration completely invalid, such a claim can have serious implications on exacerbating the stigma against Chinese people. Typical to former US propaganda, through the dissemination of fake news, Trump is creating a common enemy to the US in an attempt to divert the public ‘s attention from his administration’s failings. This comes in line with the recently leaked Republican memos that encourages candidates to relentlessly blame China for the spread of the virus in their public statements. They are also encouraged to criticize democratic candidates for being “too soft” on China, in an attempt to delegitimize the opponents’ party. Employing fake news as a strategy is overused by Trump in various contexts, one of which is labeling far-left media as “fake news”.
Anti-establishments groups also play a role in the production and dissemination of disinformation. In Germany for example, right-wing conspiracy theorists are exploiting the pandemic-caused uncertainty to create a discourse of hate and mistrust against politicians and the goverment. Through their alternative media, they use fake news to stir anger against democratic political parties. Some media agencies are also to blame for spreading panic by publishing unverified information and taking an active role in both disinformation and misinformation.
Efforts to combat the spread of fake news
With increasing pressure on social media companies to act against the spread of fake news and hate speech related to coronavirus, tech-giants such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and others have collaborated with the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the EU in an attempt to eliminate the spread of fake news. Users searching for information on COVID19 are directed by social media companies to official organizations websites, guaranteeing that search results are predetermined. They are also cooperating with fact-checkers, in order to identify false information and erase it.
Despite that social media platforms have stepped up their game in fighting against misinformation, some argue their efforts are minimal. Critics argue that such platforms are built on the ethos of profit maximization, their business model feeds on clicks and shares, with no emphasis or consideration to accuracy. Therefore, combating misinformation might not be in the best interest of these platforms. Moreover, algorithms that determine who sees what online, use people’s biases when deciding which content is relevant for each individual user. Social media advertising tools enable misinformation campaigns to draw on individuals’ confirmation biases by designing messages to people who are more prone to believe them. One would wonder how genuine are the efforts of social media platforms in regulating their content, when they have been reluctant to address hate speech and anti-vaxx propaganda before? How effective it is given the embedded biases built in their systems and the filter bubbles traps?
Watch: How can you spot coronavirus fake news stories?
Udupa, S., Gagliardone, I., Deema, A. and Csuka, L., 2020. Hate Speech, Information Disorder, and Conflict.
Farkas, J. and Schou, J., 2018. Fake news as a floating signifier: Hegemony, antagonism and the politics of falsehood. Javnost-The Public, 25(3), pp.298-314.