A run-in with fake news

February. A time before social distancing, silent cities, and closed universities. Toilet roll and spaghetti still happily line supermarket aisles. The total number of coronavirus cases in the UK has barely edged past a dozen. And the official line from Downing Street remains one of attentive personal hygiene.

All these things are unimaginably alien now. Yet all were reality just a few weeks ago.

Factual, well-written, and devoid of any of the instantly suspicious grammatical inconsistencies, a notification flickers across the faint glow of my phone screen, drawing my eyes towards the words “avoiding coronavirus”. Like many others, my thirst for guidance beyond ensuring I wash my hands for two choruses’ worth of happy birthday is already at a fever pitch. In seeing these words, a mixture of curiosity and hope suddenly takes hold. Out of the rush of instinct alone, I tap on the message’s authoritative title.

The ensuing comes in the form of a list, forwarded on by a close friend reading medicine at a prestigious Mexican university. Neat, organised, trusting, the precisely-formatted bullet points and factual, scientific register are very much the mirror image of my friend herself. I plough on through what allegedly belongs to an (unnamed) group of “researchers at the Monterrey TEC University”. Their findings, undoubtedly the fruit of many hours of painstaking scientific research, essentially consist of several home remedies and ‘preventative techniques’, all ‘proven’ to reduce the chance of infection. No explanation, no references: just a snappy summary of what to do in order to avoid catching the dreaded virus.

I should point out that the inverted commas and dose of dry humour have been inserted with the luxury of hindsight. It is an understatement to call suspicious the idea that scientists would seriously propose consuming vast quantities of a lemon juice and olive oil mix in an attempt to maintain an “alkaline bodily pH, which helps prevent the spread of the virus”. Indeed, as far as I am aware, neither the WHO nor the NHS have started requisitioning bottles of the Mediterranean condiment in their latest bid to flatten the curve. When combined with the fact that a quick Google search shows that the university’s own website does not even list the blend among their more orthodox recommendations, I am left asking the question why, at the time, I took this misinformation so seriously.

Deprived of any certainty and desperate to feel less helpless in the face of a dangerous illness, perhaps a part of me longed to believe that these dubious pointers had some merit. Perhaps the veneer of pseudoscientific claims quelled any of the initial doubts that would usually drape a cloud of scepticism over my outlook. Most worrying of all, if Eduroam had not failed just seconds later, perhaps I might even have found myself online, attempting to locate industrial-sized bottles of extra virgin olive oil.

Fake news and social media

It only takes a casual glance at any major news outlet to understand that my encounter with fake news related to coronavirus is an experience shared by many. Whether it be mildly misleading or dangerously absurd in nature – of commendable mention in this latter category is the conspiracy theory that the systematic arson of 5G masts will help stop the spread of the virus – more often than not, much of this misinformation seems to come from the usual culprit: social media.

The challenge facing the 45% of people who access their news from sources such as Facebook is daunting. Each instance of fake news exposes the dangerous ‘grey area’ to which online freedom of expression has given rise – a grey area that in turn skews the previously black and white boundary between fact and fiction. When combined with our natural human instinct to do everything possible that will protect us from harm, the potential for – and consequences of – deceit are naturally immense during these testing times.

Aware of this growing problem, the likes of Google and Facebook have already started to take remedial action. You may well be familiar with pop-up YouTube ads that direct viewers to the NHS’s webpage on Covid-19, or Facebook’s severe limitations, dictating what can and cannot be published by official pages on the subject. Traditional news sources are also attempting to turn the tide in the battle for the truth: in addition to the BBC’s series of articles exposing common myths surrounding Covid-19, a leading French site has taken even more drastic efforts, independently verifying scores of uploaded photos and videos propelled to fame by the virus.

Yet those who think these measures are sufficient on their own should radically rethink the sheer scale of the problem.

Social media’s very purpose revolves around sharing content as widely and as quickly as possible. As such, even the strictest measures that simultaneously protect the freedom of expression can offer no guarantee that a deceitful post will not be shared hundreds, even thousands, of times by unsuspecting users. By the time the lie is detected, flagged, and taken down, any follow up is ultimately meaningless as the damage has already been done. Indeed, if a cleverly-written document was able to dupe my Mexican friend, an expert in her chosen field of medicine, the implications for the vast majority of us who put faith in the science we are told without fully understanding the theory behind it are perilous.

Parallels with, and lessons from, HIV

It would be factually incorrect to say that fake news is the product of new technological advances alone. It is true that the internet has certainly contributed to a change in the reporting/receiving dynamic, ultimately upending the paradigm by giving everyone the means to be content creators rather than mainstream media sources counting on financial gain. Consequently, misinformation on illnesses was harder to spread before the advent of social media – but by no means impossible.

Take, for example, the infamous rumours that once surrounded HIV/AIDS, particularly prominent in countries such as the USA. Countless sources show that during the 1980s, the absence of the internet did not prevent absurd rumours from blurring the line between science and fiction with a similar viciousness to the misinformation that accompanies Covid-19 today. To illustrate just how damaging and torturous this news came to be, I need only make passing reference to the treatment of legendary basketball player Magic Johnson, who tested positive for HIV in 1991.

Nowadays, HIV is a treatable disease – reducing the aforementioned fear aspect, and thus doing a great deal to help dissipate rumours. At the time of writing, the coronavirus is not.

Despite this crucial difference, we can nonetheless learn several invaluable lessons from the past. Armed with the luxury of hindsight, this is precisely what Dr J. Heller endeavoured to achieve in an article published in 2015, outlining the actions that societies must undertake to prevent misinformation from becoming as much of an obstacle to progress as the disease itself. For you or I, his conclusion essentially boils down to a question of trust. On the one hand, we, as responsible individuals, need to positively trust in official, science-backed channels of information, whilst also exercising a healthy scepticism for claims published by unapproved channels.

Trust and the post-truth age

To make matters even more complicated, such a clear-cut decision-making process rooted firmly in a trust of official institutions has been all but ripped to shreds by the arrival of the ‘post-truth’ age, and its accompanying anti-establishment discourse. The fact that confidence in the political class has hit rock bottom and, in the case of coronavirus, the BBC reported that several world leaders had even shared misinformation about the disease online, certainly indicates the scale of the problem.

Yet, to put it bluntly, politics is not the answer.

The #ClapForNHS movement is, in my opinion, where the key to solving the coronavirus misinformation enigma lies. Touching, emotional and, more importantly still, essentially apolitical in nature, shows of solidarity such as this movement remind us of a fact all-too easily forgotten in the age of identity politics: that being part of any society ultimately means sharing a collective responsibility to the lives and wellbeing of those around you. Whether those lives belong to the people with whom you are acquainted, to those who make up the miniscule tip of the iceberg barely visible above the waterline, or conversely to the anonymous millions, hidden beneath the surface by unfamiliar place names or social, political, and economic circumstances very different to your own, is irrelevant. As a society, as a country, as a race, such movements show that we really are all in this together.

And as far as our role as responsible social media users is concerned, this means fulfilling our duty to those around us by thinking twice – both about the content and the potential consequences of the information we share.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.