About the author : Hoëlenn Ayoul is an MA student of International Relations and Regional Studies at the University of Tartu, specialising in Russian and Eurasian Studies. Her main research interests are connected to security studies and state-building challenges in transitional societies in the post-Soviet space.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has come to dominate the media internationally. For the past two years we have all been at some point confronted with fake news, disinformation and conspiracy thinking about the Covid-19 pandemic wether it be on the news, amongst our friends or within our families. We all had to eventually engage with those ideas and witnessed that Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent response have been accompanied by an excessive influx of both accurate and inaccurate information. From the theory that the virus had been created in a lab to the belief that vaccines somehow are linked to 5G tracking or that the mRNA technology can alter our DNA, to name but a few - the health crisis has produced its fair share of fake news and conspiracy theories.
We reached a point where misinformation seems to spread faster than the virus itself. This growing ecosystem of misinformation about the virus, how it spreads, how to cure it and who is ‘behind’ it, has prompted the World Health Organization Director General, Tedros Adhanom, to declare that «We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic . Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.»
An Old Phenomenon Supported by New Technologies?
Ultimately there is nothing new about the proliferation of misinformation, fake news or conspiracy theories in time of crisis. As with Covid, earlier epidemics have also been accompanied with waves of false information. Centuries ago, the Black Death epidemy was blamed on a Jews conspiracy and in the 19th century, the cholera outbreak was claimed to have been fabricated by doctors to take patients to hospital and kill them for their body parts. Evidences show that fake news feed on a lack of scientific literacy among society and that conspiracy theories have always been a symptom of pandemics. So, how is today’s pandemic any different than in the past ?
While fake news have been around forever, new technologies of communication and our ability to share and instantly retweet pieces of information have not. As Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, puts it “We’ve faced pandemics before, We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.” In the past decades, the increased global access to internet and especially social media has led to a spike in the production and diffusion of information. New platforms, like Twitter or Facebook facilitate the rapid, viral spread of information online, and by association, the spread of fake news or misleading information to every corner of the world, potentially reaching billions of people. For instance, tweets about the movie “plandemic” (e.g., #plandemic) fueled the debates around the veracity of the pandemic or the origins of the virus even after the film was taken down by the main social media platforms. This increased flux of information is even more relevant in the current context where the entire world is affected by the virus. Unlike previous fake news targets such as local events or elections, there is a global audience consuming information material related to the Covid-19 thereby constituting a fertile ground for the spreading of fake news. In addition to all the existing misinformation being disseminated by the general public, news organisations have been known for publishing false or misleading information pushed by prominent public figures such as politicians, scientists and celebrities without substantive evidence.
The Psychological Manipulation behind Conspiracy Thinking
As we’ve seen, since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, nearly every country has seen an unprecedented increase in fake news. But why does the pandemic provide such fertile ground for fake news and conspiracy thinking? If we understand why conspiracy theories and misinformation about Covid-19 have had such traction, we could potentially come up with better strategies to tackle this ‘infodemic’.
According to psychological researches, fake news and conspiracy theories are more likely to flourish in time of crisis where people experience a general feeling of uncertainty and increased stress. In her research on conspiracy theories, Douglas explains that conspiracy beliefs are oftentimes the product of “epistemic (e.g., the desire for understanding, accuracy, and subjective certainty), existential (e.g., the desire for control and security), and social (e.g., the desire to maintain a positive image of the self or group)” motivations. What she says is that in such context of heightened uncertainty and fear, we are drawn to these types of information because they offer a feeling of reassurance and predictability that our current predicament lacks. For example, belief in a virus developed in a lab (#plandemic) provides a sense of control, because it provides a simple explanation for complex and unpredictable events and helps us build a stable and coherent understanding of our world through a clear causal explanation. Conversely, we see little misinformation being spread around diseases like malaria, because we are more familiar with them; it’s easily curable and the medicine is largely available.
These observations are particularly true in the case of the Covid pandemic where most of us have experienced some form of lockdown or isolation throughout the several waves of Covid infection and compensated with an increased media consumption. This increased exposure might have left most of us overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information being produced and spread worldwide about the pandemic to the point that we can’t process it critically anymore.
Cristina Tardáguila, Associate Director of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), had declared that ‘‘It’s amazing what the mixture of panic and the lack of good data can do to our brains and to our capacity to sort fact from fiction. COVID–19 is the biggest challenge fact-checkers have ever faced.’
The Struggle of Fact-checking Tools
On that account we can conclude that modern technologies are amplifying our biases in harmful ways. In an attempt to counter this trend, many actors from the private and publics sphere have increased the number of fact-checks and set up specific apparatus to target the diffusion of false information. Some states, like the UK, have set up government units to address potentially harmful content and on a global level the World Health Organisation (WHO) has created a “myth busters” webpage to try and tackle this type of misinformation.
As studies have shown many fact-checking outlets around the world appear to be devoting most of their time and resources to debunking claims about the pandemic. However this might not suffice. “The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team... we’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter.
While fact-checks provide a reliable way to identify misinformation, fact-checkers have their limits in terms of the amount of data they can process and the reach they can have. Obviously, they have limited access to misinformation being spread through private channels, by email, in closed groups, and in offline exchanges. But if we go one step further, fact-checks are often unlikely to reach their target audience because of a phenomenon called echo chamber – a self-reinforcing group of people who share the same opinions. We naturally tend to connect with like-minded people but search engines and social media amplify that tendency by using our data to personalize their recommendation based on our preferences, further entrenching users in their own information bubble by putting forward content that will most likely confirm what they already believe.
In the long run, the result is that people are increasingly segregated into communities that ressemble these echo chambers. And when it comes to fact-checking, we can witness a segregation of fake news from their fact-checks: the false information is more likely to circulate in some fringe circles whereas the debunking articles will be found elsewhere.
The Consequences of the Infodemic
All the phenomena explained above are not specific to the Covid-19 pandemic, however in a public health crisis like the one we are experiencing, access to accurate and reliable information can be a question of life and death. Studies have demonstrated that the spread of fake news online has a negative effect on public health as it has been associated with a low level of compliance with official guidance on COVID-19. Therefore health related misinformation can exacerbate infectious disease outbreaks, with consequences that reach beyond the individual conspiracy/fake news believer. For instance, we saw that in numerous countries the vaccine rollouts have been hampered by misinformation and conspiracy thinking around its effects thus making it harder to achieve herd immunity. The increased diffusion of misleading or false information contribute to a general erosion of public trust towards health officials and their respective government in ways that could elongate the pandemic.
The main conclusion that can be drawn is that in our time of interconnectedness and physical distancing, the role of online platforms is pivotal in shaping our understanding of the world and defining our attitudes towards the virus and will need to remain a prime target of the policies implemented to tackle the spread of the virus. “Public trust in science and evidence is essential for overcoming Covid-19,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director-General, “therefore, finding solutions to the infodemic is as vital for saving lives from Covid-19 as public health measures’’. The fight against the pandemic must thus take place online as much as offline, addressing misinformation one click at a time.
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