Fake News and COVID-19: The Spreading of a “Disinfodemic”

Fake News and COVI-19: The Spreading of a "Disinfodemic"
Source: Getty Images

The fake-news issue is certainly not a new topic. As social media took over political propaganda and became a crucial campaign tool, the spread of tainted news to swing the pools has also become rampant. This, of course, was just a smoke screen; a seemingly harmless propaganda tool to attract the attention of those who could not see through the lies. This has been going on for some time now, with a general passive acceptance to it. We have grown accustomed to fake news, partially due to the sheer amount of media outlets that populate the internet, and partially for our own inability to act. However, as Covid-19 broke loose across the world, the spread of misinformation and fake news turned out to be a far more dreadful affair.

In order to begin our analysis, it is crucial to understand the bearing that mainstream media has on our society. In our ever-more globalized world, it is in the media outlets that the power of shifting public opinion and beliefs regarding our present resides. However, this can easily become a double-edged sword, for the same power that resides in information is present in misinformation as well. The duty of a journalist is to report the present, and to spread awareness and knowledge: not to let private interests get in the way of describing reality. Indeed, while information empowers, disinformation disempowers: it endangers lives and leads to confusion and discord.

Hence, it would appear extremely necessary that during the worst pandemic that humankind has ever faced, news would have been as thorough and accurate as possible to help the population handle this tragedy. Sadly, it was not. As a study from Amy Watson points out, “around 47 percent of surveyed U.S. adults had encountered a lot or at least some news about the coronavirus which seemed completely made up”. She continues:

“This highlights the issue of fake news circulation and unreputable sources seeking to capitalize on the public’s need for news and updates in times of crisis.”

Amy Watson, Research expert at Statista

This shows the egoistical nature of modern mainstream media. The purpose is no longer to spread news in order to create a well informed and functional society. Rather, it has become a sort of rat race: an egotistical competition to see who can get the most clicks and visualizations. A race in which the only losers are us, the people, who are left wandering in the dark without a reliable source of information.

Fake News and COVI-19: The Spreading of a "Disinfodemic"
Source: Neil Hall/EPA/EFE

As further evidence, a study conducted by the APS (Association for Psychological Science) on a basis of over 1700 adults presents evidence that people share false claims about Covid-19 simply because they do not bother to check whether what they are sharing online is actually accurate or not. This was due partially to a lack of fact checking that can be classified as laziness. However, the majority of the examined confessed that the reason they did not bother to actually check whether the news they were sharing was accurate or not is because they had complete faith that the source they were taking from was accurate. Therefore, the issue of fake news is rooted at the core. People have grown accustomed to believing and trusting in certain media outlets who they believe to be reporting the truth. However, no matter the fact that many of these outlets are lying, people still blindly follow them, usually due to ties to certain political realities.

Data from the UNESCO report “Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19” reflect the exposure audiences have to disinformation and their consequent vulnerability to the latter. The Bruno Kessler foundation, analysing 112 million social media posts, showed that 40% of the posts were based on unreliable sources. According to the Reuters Institute, “roughly ⅓ of social media users have reported seeing false or misleading information about the coronavirus”. Furthermore, there are 191 websites in Europe and North America that published fake news about Covid-19. Finally, “more than 3500 false or misleading pieces of information” were reported and disproved by the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. All of these data tell us a story, a pattern of mischief that impoverishes the purposes of journalism and communication.  

News can influence the behaviour of people; in such unprecedented times, it is crucial to spread clear and truthful information. As the World Health Organization has stated, together with the pandemic, an “infodemic” has emerged: the overwhelming amount of facts given to audiences makes it problematic to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. When people’s lives are at stake, trustworthy and objective information should be prioritised, and political agendas should be put in second place. It became clear that it is fundamental to stop the spread of fake news on social media with appropriate regulations, however without imposing a limitation on freedom of speech. 

  • Is modern journalism excessively biased due to the capitalization of news?
  • Is teaching audiences to detect fake news enough to prevent misinformation? 
  • Can regulations that would fact check news and censor potential fake news be deemed to be a limit to freedom of speech? 

Suggested Reading

UNESCO, Journalism, Press Freedom, and COVID-19 (Issue brief in the UNESCO series: World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development)

Aurora Ceccotti
Francesco Felici
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