How Coronavirus is Spreading Fake News

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Unless you live on another planet, you cannot avoid the drama that has struck the UK since Coronavirus.

Supermarkets are selling out of essentials as if the apocalypse is about to take place, and the news is awash with stories around the globe of expected cases and death tolls. It’s grim reading if ever there was any.

But while it’s easy to get swept into a panic, the World Health Organisation has warned that fake news surrounding Coronvairus is causing an ‘infodemic’ that is seeing false stories and cases increasing the fear and panic in the public.

The UK Government, this week, has announced that it is launching a new initiative to counter fake claims. The disinformation unit, spearheaded by the NHS, will counteract conspiracy theories and aim to lay rest to false information surrounding Coronavirus.

Misinformation is notorious in our digital world. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, have been trying to fight the spread of fake news for years. However, now with a new epidemic on our hands, it appears that what we consume online has to also be questioned with a curious mind, rather than taken as gospel truth.

 

The media frenzy

Since coronavirus was declared a global health threat, all press and media outlets have been publishing stories on the hour, every hour. It’s relentless, and for those severely at risk, it is a vital source of information – especially when socially isolating.

Yet many publishers have been too quick to report coronavirus outbreaks without substantiating claims.

Harvard was among the first to warn people about where they get their information from — claiming that with the conspiracy theories and ‘cures’, people must be vigilant about where they source their information, and how they use it.

From large media outlets to local publishers, it’s been a shocking display of modern journalism, with claims being reported and then retracted. One example in the Cambridgeshire area comes from the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, who reported a case of coronavirus at Peterborough Hospital, only to retract the news due to misinformation.

 

The social storm

Unfortunately, it’s not just the press who are guilty of getting their facts wrong.

As much as we love our social platforms, they are rife with misinformation.

Since coronavirus, Facebook, Twitter and Google have taken steps to ban content relating to coronavirus that could cause harm. But as we know, there is only so much control these tech companies have over the content that is shared. While advertising content can be regulated, nothing stops the spread of gossip and false claims from users.

According to one report by the New York Times, a private Facebook group of more than 100,000 members was running riot with various conspiracy theories of where coronavirus had stemmed from.

Tech companies are using their fake news policies in real-time to attempt to combat the spread of misinformation, but there’s still little that can be done to educate users. Private groups and messages are harder to moderate.

Let’s not also forget that sharing fake news is easily done. People are quick to like or even share a story on social media without clarifying the facts are valid, or even without reading the full feature. Yet to the vulnerable in our society, this news could have a dramatic impact on their mental health and their social interactions.

 

The Scams

Alongside the press and social media, there are also those trying to profit from the epidemic.

According to cybersecurity firm Check Point, 4,000 new websites that mention coronavirus in their name have been created in 2020, with 3% of those confirmed as malicious.

These websites are targeted at those who are seeking prevention or cures in preparation of becoming infected.

Many of these websites make false claims about the virus, and do not offer any regulated health advice, and pose a huge threat to those who are vulnerable and at risk.

Gathering information online about any illness or virus is something we have all become accustomed to in our modern world, but with the increase of misinformation spreading, the government is working alongside platforms such as Google to promote only regulated and authority websites that provide valid information.

 

Be a Responsible Publisher

At a time such as this, when information and education are vital to our health and well-being, anyone who publishes news or content surrounding coronavirus must do so with responsibility.

Google has been a shining example of this, with the platform banning ads on face masks that make false claims about coronavirus.

Google has even advised businesses that if they are in any way impacted by the coronavirus, they should update their Google My Business Page with the relevant details. Highlighting to customers if there are any changes in regards to contact details, opening hours or even services.

News organisations, in particular, who are trying to report, must tackle the balance of conveying seriousness and clear information, without provoking panic.

However, the responsibility must also lie with us as users of these platforms. We must think before we share stories, and we must remember the consequences of misinformation.

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