The epidemic of false information in this worldwide pandemic is even more infectious than the virus itself. Fortunately, there is a vaccine for this epidemic of fake news: quality information and information filters. However, not everyone has been vaccinated. Here is an immunization effort.

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Even the most anxious of us have become accustomed to the bizarre routine of life in a state of emergency in the weeks since the onset of the pandemic. We didn’t run out of toilet paper, we still have flour, and we finally found yeast. We managed to convince ourselves that bread wouldn’t disappear from stores, yet we revived our baking skills anyway to calm down. Perhaps we were overcompensating – should there be any famine, our spatulas would be ready for the sourdough game and our trays would be filled with the mix of flour, water and salt that smells like Heaven!

In other words, we’ve adapted. As we usually do. Even in the harshest of circumstances. But there is another pandemic to which, unfortunately, we cannot adapt as quickly — false information. It’s proven to be even more infectious than the new coronavirus: while cases of COVID-19 are in the millions, cases of those exposed to false news about COVID-19 are in the hundreds of millions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in February the outbreak of an “infodemic” related to the new coronavirus – an excess of information (both true and false) that prevents people from finding reliable sources and the guidance they need in this period of crisis. In an infodemic, it is virtually impossible to keep some false information from going viral. But there are steps that can be taken to protect the population and reduce damage as much as possible.

Personal measures

One way we can cope is to develop thorough information filtering skills. To do so, figure out who are the most prolific fake news disseminators, where they get their information from, what kind of false information is popular, and what explains it’s popularity.

The vast majority (59%) of false information related to COVID-19 is not pure fabrication, but “various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked“, as research pointed out. Pure invention accounted for only 38% of fake news.

The misinformation train

The Reuters Institute at Oxford University has created a list of many key sources of misinformation. Politicians, celebrities and other notorious public figures were the main engineers of the disinformation train. Although only 20% of the false claims analysed by the institute were present in the discourse of these public actors, they accounted for 69% of total social media engagement.

Mainstream users had far less social media engagement, but far more variety in the fake claims they circulated. Nevertheless, the investigators admit that they did not have access to private social media groups, where fake news is able to proliferate without hindrance.

Who fills the wagons with lies?

Regarding the information itself, the most numerous by far were fake news referring to actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies like the WHO or the UN. No less than 39% of the news in the Reuters sample belonged to this category. This high percentage becomes understandable when we learn the main sources of fake news that were propagated.

An official European investigation, the European External Action Service Report, shows that Russia and China are the main sources of disinformation campaigns circulating during this pandemic. According to the report, from January to March, Russia spread more than 150 fake claims about the new coronavirus pandemic, which praised the Kremlin government. At the same time, Chinese media outlets promoted unverified theories about the origin of COVID-19 and praised the Republic of China by displaying the thankfulness of several European leaders for aid received from China. In Africa, several social and ethnic minorities have been blamed for the spread of the virus, and in the Middle East, the Daesh terrorist organization has described the pandemic as “painful torture” against “crusading nations.”

The report shows that disinformation attacks have targeted minority groups and sought to discredit democratic institutions in the fight against the pandemic. The European Union has particularly been targeted, using messages such as: “The European Union fails to cope with the pandemic”, “The EU is collapsing”, “The EU is selfish and betrays its own values”, “Russia and China are responsible powers”, ” The EU exploits the crisis in its own interest”, “The West turns its back on the countries of Eastern Europe”, etc.

In addition, fake news reports issued incorrect medical recommendations, sometimes with disastrous effects. The Associated Press recently reported that more than 700 Iranians lost their lives ingesting methanol in order to cure themselves of the coronavirus. Information that “pure alcohol would treat COVID-19” also circulated in Turkey, parallel to the claim that “Turks would have an increased genetic resistance to coronavirus”.

In Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as in the Western Balkans, fact-checking organizations have reported an unprecedented volume of misinformation and conspiracy theories. The most common of these are related to COVID-19 as a “man-made virus” and “miracle treatments” for COVID-19.

Where truth goes to die

Conspiracies that were already spreading in English-speaking media went on to spread unhindered on social networks and on propagandistic websites when written in less circulated languages.

Outnumbering the vigilant capacity social networks have for non-English posts, claims like that of a link between 5G technology and the spread of coronavirus, have spread like wildfire. In Great Britain, where this premise seems to have started, the false information popularized by a former British footballer, conspiracy theorist David Icke, led to the vandalizing of 20 5G poles by people convinced that the new technology and COVID-19 were somehow related.

One conspiracy theory claimed the pandemic was just an excuse to enforce the compulsory vaccination of the worldwide population and to implant it with surveillance microchips. Old anti-vaccine videos as well as new fake information in the field flooded the online space with pseudo-news stories like “Romanian scientists have discovered a vaccine against coronavirus that is intended only for «whites»”.

Also proliferous were scenarios in which the new coronavirus was classified as a smoke screen behind which global occult groups could hide their plans. And these groups and plans seem to take on multiple shapes amid fake news reports: Bill Gates experimenting with this new coronavirus to strengthen the U.S. military for a war against Russia and China; big-pharma creating the virus to sell an antidote for it; the food industry joining forces to get people to desperately stock up, and bring fear money to the industry as a whole; the “occult” wanting to reduce the global population, eliminate cash and abuse surveillance of the population.

Conspiracies also claimed that they have access to virological information, but they could not agree: some said that “the virus was created in a laboratory in Wuhan”, others said that “the virus does not even exist”. Some said it was “a common flu”, that death statistics are inflated by “deaths of other causes”, or that COVID-19 “is a form of thrombosis”. Whatever coronavirus was, some read and passed on the information that “aerated chocolate spreads it”.

A special category is that of false information about possible treatments. “Hand washing does not help” is one of the most perverse lies, given that all medical authorities have announced, even before the pandemic, that personal hygiene is one of the first factors in prevention. It was then said that “vitamin C heals”, or “vitamin D”, or “water drunk every 15 minutes”, or that “baking soda with lemon, drunk daily is the secret behind Israel’s 0 COVID-19 deaths statistics” (though national statistics indicate otherwise).

Government measures

Claire Wardle, a misinformation expert at Harvard University, recently told Nature that “The best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices.” Today, this is the strategy that national governments are relying on, in line with the advice of transnational organizations such as WHO and UNESCO to oppose the wave of lies with a wave of correct information.

The WHO recommended that countries “prepare to communicate rapidly, regularly and transparently with the population (…) to prepare their existing public health communication networks (…) to coordinate with other organizations and to include the community in response operations.”

Through the voice of Guy Berger, Director of Communication and Information Policies and Strategies at UNESCO, the organization urged countries to increase the sources of true information so as to ensure that the informational needs of the population are met: “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data (…). Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

Technological measures

Protecting the population lies not only in governmental hands, but it is also a responsibility of tech giants whose networks are the most fertile environment for fake news. Algorithmic downgrading has been the go-to protection strategy used by technology giants such as Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This measure is vital in the context in which an investigation led by the Reuters Institute, which analysed the spread of 225 false or distorted pieces of information on coronavirus found that 88% of this information had appeared on social media platforms, 9% had appeared on TV and only 8% in press releases.

The crowdfunding activist organization Avaaz has released a report showing that millions of Facebook users are at risk of consuming false information about the new coronavirus, which could harm them. Avaaz compiled a list of 104 articles that spread false information and analysed their route around Facebook.

Simply these 104 materials, in just six languages, the “tip of the iceberg” as researchers called them, were distributed over 1.7 million times and had a reach on Facebook of over 117 million views.

Simply these 104 materials, in just six languages, the “tip of the iceberg” as researchers called them, were distributed over 1.7 million times and had a reach on Facebook of over 117 million views.

Avaaz activists have asked Facebook to implement a system to retroactively notify users who have been exposed to material subsequently marked as false by fact-checking organizations that have partnered with the network. The authors of the report say it took Facebook even 22 days to downgrade information in its algorithms that had been marked as false. Such a reaction time virtually allows the unimpeded propagation of harmful information. For example, a post claiming that a natural remedy for COVID-19 is ingesting water from boiled garlic, or gargling with water, salt, or vinegar, was distributed 31,000 times before being deleted off of the network. But the same information was cloned into other 2,611 posts that garnered more than 92,000 views.

The Pew Research Center found that approximately 30% of American adults still believe the new coronavirus was created in a laboratory, even though competent and authoritative sources denied the information. Analysts such as Professor Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington say the current efforts social networks are taking are “like trying to treat the global crisis with a band-aid” or “like praising Philip Morris for putting filters to cigarettes.”

An impossible inventory

From the beginning of April to April 29 (the date of writing this material) the European website EU vs DisInfo uncovered no less than 1,297 fake news items, exposing not only their content, but also counter-evidence, as well as the sites that had been used to disseminate them. This information offers us a picture of what an infodemic means and why it’s so difficult to curb.

The natural instinct of a news consumer reader is to try to verify the information that comes from the media. But in an infodemic, because the information flows in torrents, the reader is overwhelmed by the excessive amount of issues to be checked and is made vulnerable by the need to make urgent decisions (Should I use a mask, or does it not help me? Should I make provisions and for how long? Should I buy food supplements or stock up on baking soda and lemon?).

Fact-checking organizations, which exist to probe the mud for the truth, often do what the average media consumer can’t: create an inventory of the lies and the truths that fight them. New Guard Tech, for example, made a list of the 13 most popular COVID-19 myths and how they emerged : who launched them and how they went viral.

It was supposed to be 10 such myths, just like the article you have just finished reading was only supposed to be a description of the top five fake news currently circulating. However, the times we live in require some extra effort, and that extra effort becomes our guiding rule.

Check out all our COVID-19 coverage. We update constantly.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.