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How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19 hoaxes?

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We can assume, with caution, that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. Most of the affected countries are also gradually starting to ease lockdown measures to varying degrees.

The huge health crisis at the beginning of the epidemic has evolved into a situation where everything seems to be a little more under control, in which most hospitals and health centers are starting to have the capacity to treat all coronavirus patients, while the race to find a reliable and effective vaccine against this virus is underway.

One thing that seems never-ending is the chain of hoaxes and fake news stories, mostly aiming to misinform citizens. They spread through social networks and apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, reaching a huge percentage of the population.

What’s the point of spreading disinformation and fake or even harmful news? These initiatives are always driven by dubious motives, ranging from political interest to causing social panic, to doing (unethical) business at the expense of people led to believe they are purchasing a solution to the problem (from masks to “natural” remedies).

Fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic putting lives at risk

UNESCO reported a month ago that “unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of disinformation that’s accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘disinfodemic’.”

This mass campaign of disinformation means that many lives may be at risk, for example, when people with symptoms start taking unsubstantiated remedies in the hope of ‘healing’ themselves.

Guy Berger, Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO, and one of the agency’s leading officials in the area of disinformation, warns of the enormous risk of fake news during times of pandemic:

In a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow. The big risk [that we face] is that any single falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts. When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact [on society].

In fact, many of the hoaxes that reach any of us through multiple channels are casting doubt about government actions, the real number of victims and patients, potential remedies or even the precautions and rules that should be followed at each phase of easing lockdown.

Transparency from official sources is essential for putting a stop to disinformation

Is there a way to stop disinformation? It is unlikely that anything can be done to prevent the spread of disinformation at its source — whoever creates it will continue to do so as long as it spreads as intended. The only way to stop false information from spreading is by not forwarding this type of content or even giving it visibility to condemn it, much less by encouraging it.

The most important question, however, is this: What can be done to make sure that true, useful, and potentially life-saving information is more visible? From UNESCO’s point of view, the best way to achieve this is by improving the supply of accurate information and ensuring that demand is met.

According to Mr. Berger:

“We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumors, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

This does not mean that the only reliable sources of information during this crisis are governments. On the contrary, Berger says:

“This is not a substitute for information supplied by the news media, so we are also intensifying our efforts to persuade authorities to see free and professional journalism as an ally in the fight against disinformation, especially because the news media works openly in the public sphere, whereas much disinformation is under-the-radar, on social messaging apps.”

Therefore, if we combine transparency from authentic official sources with independent and highly professional journalism, we will have a solid basis from which to find reliable information. But that’s not all.

How can we check if information is true? What tools are available?

To combat this true pandemic of inaccurate, false, or malicious information (as the case may be) we have many tools at our disposal. For example, fact checking sites, like Maldita (which has a constantly updated article that lists over 550 proven coronavirus-related hoaxes), Newtral or the international site Snopes.

If you’re wondering why we should trust that the information on these fact checking websites is true, the most honest answer is that all information can be verified, but it may still include some inadvertent errors. These websites are backed by numerous experts and they adhere to a specific methodology when checking information (the Spanish Chequeado website summarizes this very well, but all of the sites that we mentioned are transparent in the same way). Moreover, importantly, they are independent of other interests. You could go even further and ask who is checking the checker, but this would be outside the scope of this article.

Furthermore, we should not restrict ourselves to just one fact checking source, we should use other sources, including those published in other countries and languages. The key to finding the closest thing to the truth is in the variety of sources.

Identifying fake news and not sharing it

Beyond the fact checking and other websites, the public can help massively to eradicate these practices by simply learning to identify suspicious news or information and, once discovered, stop it in its tracks by not sharing it with their contacts.

To identify fake news, we can look out for some shared characteristics that could appear in any media with the aim of making such information go viral:

  • They use eye-catching headlines that have nothing to do with the content of the article.
  • They use public figures, share old news as if it were current, or include events that have not happened, for example alleged deaths of famous people.
  • The news is sensationalistic and controversial.
  • They edit images by retouching them, cropping them or making montages.
  • They introduce bias in the news focus to get a reaction from people depending on their political leanings or beliefs.

It is down to everybody to put a stop to the huge amount of disinformation generated on a daily basis with the most dubious of motives. Using common sense and allowing time for the news we see to “sink in,” rather than allowing our gut reaction to take over when a headline shocks us is without a doubt the smartest strategy to begin with.