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LIFE LESSONS

Pandemic shows we are still gullible to fake news

With the Internet, the cost of communicating to a large audience has dropped down to just the few shillings needed for a data bundle

In Summary

• Ever since the 2016 US presidential elections, the Internet has been a mixed bag

Man looks at different digital devices
Man looks at different digital devices
Image: PEXELS

As children, we were taught not to believe everything in the news. But the spread of false information regarding the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic shows that people remain vulnerable to misinformation, especially from online sources.

The fake news phenomenon is worsened by — to put it politely — misleading statements posted online by some world leaders. Furthermore, it is emerging that certain well-known organisations of global repute withheld or manipulated information regarding Covid-19 for political reasons.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro had some of their social media posts deleted for posting information viewed as contrary to mainstream medical advice on Covid-19.

 

A research study published in the Star in the aftermath of the 2017 general election showed 38 per cent of Kenyan respondents shared fake news through social media. This was the highest among the countries surveyed, evidence that fake news is prevalent in the country’s social media landscape.

The second highest percentage was South Africa at 35 per cent, followed by Nigeria at 28 per cent. Just 17 per cent of people surveyed in the United States admitted to sharing fake news.

 

The term ‘fake news’ fell into popular usage during campaigns for the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. Incidentally, the ‘fake news’ tag continues to haunt President Trump’s administration. After 2016, it was assumed people would be more careful about believing news from the Internet. However, the fake news phenomenon did not end in 2016. The spreading of fake news relating to the Covid-19 pandemic shows a large number of people remain gullible to it.

A good example is that of a video clip circulating online showing police punching, kicking and dragging elderly people into vans. Information accompanying the video clip says some countries in Europe are forcibly quarantining everyone over the age of 50. In reality, no such measures have been taken. Some sources say the video was taken in France, other sources say it is from Turkey. The video is edited from footage of a street protest that occurred long before Covid-19.

Most recently, a story went viral with the revelation that black, sugarless tea could provide immunity from Covid-19, but that it had to be taken by 7am Sunday on March the 29. The revelation was reportedly made by a newborn baby who, it is said, died soon afterwards. News of the supposed remedy spread rapidly across the coastal part of Kenya, with people calling friends and relatives in the middle of the night to spread the news before the deadline. However, there is no information about the baby or the place of the baby’s birth and death.

The Internet is filled with information about alleged Covid-19 vaccines, magic cures and protective potions. Many people have died as a result of taking fake remedies, including at least 300 people who died in Iran after drinking a methanol concoction. Countless other people across the world have lost money to con artists selling so-called secret remedies.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

 
 

There are plenty of conspiracy theories claiming to explain the origins of Covid-19, with the authors ranging from ordinary people to celebrities who enjoy huge following on social media. The United States, China, Russia have seen the brunt of allegations that they created the virus, as have multinational corporations, international bankers and shadowy billionaires.

 
 

Why is it so easy for people to believe unverified information? The ease of social media and its use among a large part of the population can explain it. Before the Internet age, it was very difficult for the average person to communicate to a large audience. If you did not own a newspaper, a radio or TV station, you would have had to pay for advertising space in the media. With the Internet, the cost of communicating to a large audience has dropped down to just the few shillings needed for a data bundle.

The Internet liberalised the flow of information, a positive development that broke the monopolies previously held by governments and large media organisations. However, the downside to information liberalisation is the ability of malicious persons to post false information. There is little risk of legal consequences for posting false information on the Internet. While a few people have been prosecuted for misusing social media platforms, the vast majority of users do get away with sharing fake news.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) provides guidelines on how to spot fake news.

 

Consider the source: To confirm if a story posted online is authentic, check out other posts in that website or social media page. Is the website an authoritative source on the particular subject? Some online outlets deliberately publish false information as satire or simply to attract readers.

Check the author: Use your favourite search engine to obtain information about the author of the post. What are other people saying about the individual? If there is no information online about the author, and the only articles attributed to the author are on his/her own website, that's a red flag.

Read beyond the headlines: A lot of people forward Internet links with sensational headlines without clicking to read the content. Sensational headlines are meant to attract readers but the text of the story might not be worth your time.

Supporting sources of information: Find out if the information provided is supported by alternative sources. If whatever is reported is not appearing in any of the mainstream news sources, it is most likely a fake story.

Check the date: Fake news websites often repackage old stories, pictures and video then post them as breaking news items.

Check your biases: Fake news exploits ethnic, racial, religious and other prejudices. It is easy to believe negative information about people we don’t like.

Ask the experts: Consult an expert before implementing any medical advice you get online regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

Edited by T Jalio