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COVID-19: Analyzing and attacking the spread of misinformation

by Mallory Culhane

When the coronavirus pandemic hit hard in the U.S., many people were forced to adapt to new learning, working and living situations as schools closed, businesses moved to remote work and residents were instructed to stay inside. Journalists are no exception – which presented a new range of difficulties for those in the industry.

“I’m working out of my walk-in closet in the master bedroom of my house and a bunch of us are doing that,” said Joan Jones, the morning anchor for WTOP, serving the Washington D.C. region. “I think it just presents different challenges for us…but there’s always a way around it.”  

The pandemic has also put a spotlight on a familiar issue for journalists working to report accurate information. The abundance of information, both factual and false, has caused difficulty for the average person to find reliable information on the virus, what the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling, an “infodemic.”  

A number of conspiracy theories, as well as seemingly minor false claims have contributed to a storm of misinformation online.  

The abundance of misinformation circulating on social media have left journalists, public health officials and politicians, as well as the social media platforms themselves, struggling to fight back against it and keep people properly informed.  

“[This misinformation] is no different than when we were previously reporting,” said Nathaniel Cline, a reporter for the Loudoun Times-Mirror. “I think it’s just because a lot more people are home now [and] seeking this information, that we as reporters have to definitely continue to remind ourselves to double check the information we’re printing out to the public.”

In a crisis, like the coronavirus, the need for information spikes – especially now that people are holed up at home, rates of readership on news sites have seen a drastic increase. With a situation like this that changes every day, up-to-the-minute information is key, since uncertainties and the lack of information typically cause falsehoods to spread.  

“We do take a lot of criticism…for one thing not telling the entire story,” said Jones. “When you tell how many people have been diagnosed – and you hear that number all the time: locally, nationally, and internationally – not all those people currently have coronavirus. So that adds to that scent of politicization of the issue because it makes the numbers seem so, ‘how could that many people have it?’ Well, they don’t.”  

In a paper published by a team of University of Kent psychologists back in 2017, they stated that conspiracies tend to provide an explanation of something uncertain – like the coronavirus – while, at the same time, allowing an individual to preserve their beliefs.

So, for example, having a fear of emerging technologies or the power of it could cause someone to make sense of the idea that 5G can spread the virus.

Particularly when the virus first emerged in the U.S., and because it’s a novel virus, theories flooded the internet on its origins and speculated the science of it. Theories included that the virus was created as a biochemical weapon or that Bill Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, created the virus. 

Social media platforms in particular have given misinformation a vehicle to spread faster than the truth, and to a larger number of people who are seeking as much information as they can on the virus. However, Jones points out that the misinformation being spread cannot be pinpointed to one group or individual.

“I would say that to just single out President Trump for falsehoods is a really big mistake because there are lots of other people who are in the position that [I am in] and politicians who are making completely unsubstantiated claims,” said Jones. “Once it gets out there – even if there’s a retraction the next day – too much is being said everywhere you go.”  

However, a number of social media platforms have announced new guidelines and strategies to help stop the spread of misinformation on its platforms.  

Tik Tok partnered with the WHO to help spread reliable information on coronavirus; on videos posted pertaining to the pandemic, a banner at the bottom states, “learn the facts about COVID-19,” and brings the user to a page with Tik Toks from reliable and official sources like the WHO and the American Red Cross.  

Facebook also announced a similar measure: when a user searches for coronavirus information on the platform, a pop-up will appear that directs the user to the WHO and other public health resources. In addition, Facebook is working to remove and flag information regarding coronavirus that is believed to be inaccurate.  

Twitter has also laid out how they’re handling misinformation on their platform. They too, have partnered with the WHO and many other organizations, as well as implemented new features like a “#KnowTheFacts” search prompt.  

Still, social media is ripe with false claims; particularly Twitter. A study released by Oxford University revealed that out of a sample of 225 pieces of misleading or false content published from January to March on social media platforms, 59% of that content remained on Twitter, whereas just 24% remained on Facebook.

“I haven’t been on Twitter very much at all because I think [it’s] just been especially bad,” said Jones. “So, avoiding the places that you see things that aren’t true and just making sure that we are keeping ourselves informed so that we can inform other people well too.”

There is no specific answer to stopping the spread of misinformation surrounding the pandemic with more Americans getting news from social media, feeling the need for information, and false claims being spread nearly everywhere. But, Cline emphasizes the role that journalists have in fighting false information.

“I feel like a lot more people are on their phones,” said Cline. “I think when it comes to this pandemic, I think when it comes to politics, when it comes to education, a lot of people are engaged with what’s going on. And that’s another reason why as reporters, we need to make sure that we do our very best to provide the most accurate information as possible.”

Mallory Culhane can be reached at mallory.culhane@theminaretonline.com

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