FAKE NEWS & THE PANDEMIC
So much fake news has come out about the Covid-19 pandemic that a new term has emerged to refer to the mass disinformation: ‘infodemic’.
The word ‘infodemic’ refers to the wave of misleading information on coronavirus that has recently been unleashed on social media and search engines. Speaking in the context of the health crisis, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that ‘fake news [linked to Covid-19] spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous’.
With the pandemic has come malicious false information derived from conspiracy theories. The following pieces of fake news were particularly widespread around the world: ‘The virus that causes Covid-19 is a man-made biological weapon’; ‘The Italian government is keeping migrants from getting tested for Covid-19’; ‘The Covid-19 pandemic was predicted in a simulation’.
In this context, the media, governments, and the international community have developed fact-checking bodies to fight disinformation about the virus and re-establish scientific truths about the disease. Some of these fact-checkers include: The World Health Organisation’s Mythbusters; Newsguard; and EU vs Disinfo.
CASE IN POINT: THE BALKANS IN AGE OF CORONAVIRUS
The Western Balkans have been heavily affected by false information relating to Covid-19. One fact-checking platform has focused in particular on debunking fake news about the pandemic circulating through the region: RASKRIKAVANJE.RS.
There are myriad examples to show how the infodemic has spread in the Balkans. In Bosnia, hate speech has been seen online, as was the case for a 51-year-old Bosniak woman. After returning home from a trip to Italy and testing positive for coronavirus, she was harassed by social media vigilantes after erroneous information were published by a number of media outlets that stated that she had been to a concert and taken public transport (none of which was true).
Marija Vučić, of the investigative site Raskrikavanje, says ‘these irresponsible publications are very dangerous in the current context, especially for people living in small communities. They are even afraid to go out onto the street because the locals hold them responsible for spreading the disease. This can really put some people in danger.’
As the Courrier des Balkans explains, ‘the region’s tabloids have followed in the footsteps of social media by spreading unverified information on the pandemic’.
For example, the Serbian tabloid Alo! (https://www.alo.rs/) falsely claimed that the worldwide number of infected people was decreasing. This is wrong: the downward trend has only been observed in a small number of countries. This type of mendacious content drives Sandra Bašić Hrvatin, a professor at the Faculty of Humanities of Slovenia, to say that ‘the avalanche of false information on social media has created a climate of mistrust of science, experts, and institutions. The media must not give in to sensationalism, rather, their role must be to explain the nature of the virus and indicate preventive measures using official and professional information.’
PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL MECHANISMS OF THE INFODEMIC
As the Covid-19 pandemic developed, the world saw a rise in conspiracy theories, fake news, and challenges to the official version of the origin and spread of the disease, as well as its severity. A large portion of the populations of severely affected countries, as well as those of countries less affected, were taken in by a variety of conspiracy theories and hoaxes. This comes as no surprise given that the disease is not just associated with medical expertise, but also triggers a social and psychological dynamic that is associated with conspiracies.
These theories arise when people try to give meaning to an event that otherwise seems to have none. What they are trying to do is use conspiracy theories to explain the events.
This tendency is especially strong when there is major cognitive dissonance between cause and effect. For example, a pandemic that triggered by multiple people becoming randomly infected by animals that then leads to millions of cases and almost half a million deaths around the world by mid-June 2020.
Conspiracy theories always focus on a malicious plot, often led by a small group of people against one nation or the world. The effect is that individuals are both disarmed and relieved of any responsibility.
Conspiracies are especially rife when the events affect people personally, as with the pandemic, and when trust in established knowledge and those who provide that knowledge, such as the government, science and the media, is weak.