Fact-checking the infodemic
"The amount of fake news is unbelievable. There’s no precedent”: What fact-checkers are learning about the viral spread of misinformation
Fact-checking the coronavirus pandemic has become an overwhelming task for those who’ve made a job of verifying, debunking and cutting through the noise online.
“The speed at which the misinformation is coming through and the developing nature of the pandemic – there’s been no time since we’ve began fact-checking over the last few years that there’s been such a story,” Alastair Brian of the Scotland-based Ferret Fact Service told Holyrood.
It’s easy to see why. Everybody has at least a few questions about the current crisis. Should we be wearing masks? Will there be a vaccine? When will things go back to normal?
All this uncertainty has provided the conditions for what the director of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom, called an ‘infodemic’.
“Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous,” he said in February.
And it looks like the curve of misinformation is still rising, particularly online.
Ofcom has found that 40 per cent of adults online are struggling to know what is true or false about the virus and that over half are being exposed to false or misleading information on a daily basis.
And as can be seen by the telephone masts that have been vandalised around the country by people convinced of a link between the virus and 5G technology, even the most absurd misinformation can spill over into the real world with dangerous consequences.
The amount of fake news is unbelievable. There’s no precedent.”
Monitoring the trends and trying to provide an antidote to misinformation around the world are the fact-checkers. Holyrood spoke to over a dozen of these specialists who are right now experiencing the challenge of their careers.
As Benoît Zagdoun of French public service broadcaster France Télévisions said: “The amount of fake news is unbelievable. There’s no precedent.”
Although there’s a near limitless volume of false stories out there, fact-checkers say they tend to fall into one of two categories.
The first type Brian describes as “people making claims about what they think the virus is and what can cure it.”
These include a range of home remedies, like the false claims that drinking more water or eating lots of garlic can protect from COVID-19. Some are more dangerous than others, like the claims about the efficacy of gargling disinfectant or spraying very hot water into nasal passages.
Such claims spread far and quickly. Early on in the pandemic, the president of Argentina recommended hot drinks to people in a speech, which fact-checker Laura Zommer says her colleagues at Chequeado had to call out.
“Now, he’s much more careful,” Zommer said.
Brian thinks these appear to stem from the common misconception that COVID-19 is like the flu, a claim famously repeated by a range of people including world leaders like President Trump.
The appeal of this type of misinformation could come from people’s sense of powerlessness in the face of a scary new disease, Brian says.
“This is just an incredible and unique situation where people feel totally out of control,” he says.
“Because the official advice is ‘wash your hands’ and ‘practice social distancing’, I think that’s quite dissatisfying to a lot of people.”
Then there are the quack scientists and Instagram influencers who have found COVID-19 an effective way to work their pre-existing hustles.
“The same thing they say will cure the common cold they’ll now say will cure coronavirus,” Brian said.
The other main type of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 is conspiracy theories about its origin.
The notion that the coronavirus was created in a lab and spread for the benefit of either the Chinese or American governments is widespread, according to fact-checkers.
Another is the idea that it has some link to the introduction of 5G technology, either as a direct result of microwave radiation or as a distraction to keep people indoors while the tech gets implemented.
Variants of this type of disinformation (the term for spreading false information deliberately) have been peddled by the likes of David Icke but also A-list celebrities, social media influencers and Russian propaganda broadcaster RT. ITV host Eamonn Holmes sparked an Ofcom probe after he appeared to give credence to the theory during a live broadcast.
YouTube recently changed its policy to delete videos that propagate the theory, but its mainstreaming has forced the medical director of NHS England to respond and the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to organise emergency meetings with social media firms.
Certain political events can also be lightning rods for misinformation. The resignation of Dr Catherine Calderwood from her role as Scotland’s chief medical officer was followed by viral tweets from several prominent pro-independence bloggers claiming incorrectly that the photo-journalist who captured the images of Calderwood at her second home in Fife should not have been outside of his Glasgow home (journalists are classed as essential workers and are allowed to travel for work).
“People with political viewpoints will pick this up just like anything else and they’ll use it to fit into their narrative of whatever conspiracy they believe,” Brian said.
“Fortunately, I think that people are more willing to accept the testimony or evidence of experts on health than they are in politics.”
Disinformation is harmful, and it’s like the virus"
But from a political perspective, the cumulative effect of mis/disinformation is the erosion of trust in government and mainstream media, which some fear could hamper the public health response.
“If you’re reading somewhere that the government actually knows the cure and has the vaccine but isn’t giving it out, that has the potential to cause panic and alarm and with disastrous consequences when you’re asking people to stay indoors and not go outside,” Stewart McDonald, the SNP defence spokesperson at Westminster said.
McDonald helped launch Infotagion, a dedicated COVID-19 fact-check service created by the former chair of the UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins. The project is intended to provide “very clear true or false, share or do not share” advice to the public on coronavirus misinformation, McDonald says.
Other than checking with reputable sources like fact-checkers, the best advice for the public, McDonald says, is “go slow”.
“Disinformation is harmful, and it’s like the virus. It needs to be quashed and the only way to stop it spreading is if each of us try and stop it.”