It has become more important than ever to be critical when consuming media online, especially with the current Coronavirus outbreak where any updates instantly grab everyone’s attention without giving it a second thought. Since the smartphone revolution, this has reached new heights and evolved into an ever-increasing issue. People are so gullible and with fact and fiction being so difficult to distinguish, we tend to believe everything we see especially when it taps into our emotions or is disguised as a credible source. In response, there needs to be made awareness of the exposure to fake or biased news and the importance of second-guessing instinctual reactions.
The outbreak of a new coronavirus, specifically COVID-19, that broke out in China in late 2019 has spread to hundreds of thousands of cases worldwide. As both the coronavirus and the fear of it spreads, it has caused people to enter a panic mode.
Being in this state of anxiety, they are hungry for updates and accept information easier. This relates to the economics of emotion, however while the conversion to advertising revenue may not necessarily apply, it exemplifies the influence emotion has on our attention and viewing time (Bakir & McStay, 2018). Moreover, research has proven that viral distribution is caused by high-arousal emotions such as joy or fear (Hutchinson, 2020). Therefore, as people have a constant fear of the coronavirus, they are more prone to believing misinformation and also further sharing it.
With increasing concerns about the virus, it has led to a flurry of fake news and misled facts shared on social media. The leading site is through Facebook, which is the dominant source where Americans get reporting news from by a long shot (Lazer et al., 2018).
An interesting case is when Peter Lee Goodchild on Facebook posted an “important announcement” iterating a claim from his friend’s uncle with a master’s degree with guidance to avoid the virus and symptoms to look out for. His post went viral and received over 370,000 shares (Kasprak, 2020). However it lacks the evidence to support the scientific claims. Its cause seems to be poor journalism, which I believe is in fact the most difficult type of news to identify as being inaccurate. It may have been written with good intentions in mind, however, the author should have verified his facts before publishing.
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This fake news mainly falls into the category of “misleading content” that misinforms to frame an issue and “false content” which is true information but shared in the wrong context (Wardle, 2017). This content is misleading because it includes a mix of factual and partly false information to present a flawed method to diagnose the coronavirus. For example, he claims that you may just have a common cold if you have a runny nose or sputum (phlegm,) however, it is proven that while not common, there are still cases of sputum production for COVID-19, making this claim inaccurate and perhaps also dangerous (Kasprak, 2020). He also states that this new virus is not heat-resistant and will be killed at 26-27 degrees and that after a sneeze the viral particles are airborne for 10 feet, but both without any scientific proof.
As for false content, several other points are in fact true information such as recommendations to wash your hands frequently, gargle for extra protection, and drink plenty of water. However, while these are accurate, its relation to the COVID-19 outbreak seems uncertain. Many of these points can simply apply to a regular cold but are placed in the context of the new coronavirus.
Although it may not necessarily cause harm, the unverified claims and the generic information don’t seem to offer any solid actionable information to help the virus. I find this particular example interesting because it showcases how easy information can be believed and how difficult it is to identify unreliable content.
As a media consumer, it is important to be sharing our concerns and opinions through editorials as this is just one step closer to helping people become aware of the issue of fake news. However, while there may be a slight increase of awareness of unreliable sources since the internet era, this awareness needs to become much more widespread so that everyone is mindful of it. Otherwise we stir up society and cause arousals for no reason.
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Everyone needs to be taught to second-guess information they consume, take the time to evaluate it, and cross verify it with credible news outlets. Don’t be the one to share facts without the evidence. For everyone else consuming it, learn to take a second thought, learn your facts, and think before you share. Perhaps the true solution is creating a society that places high value on truth and willingly promotes it.
- Bakir, V., & McStay, A. (2018). Fake News and the Economy of Emotions: Problems, Causes, Solutions. Digital Journalism, 6(2), 154-175.
- Hutchinson, A. (2020, January 3). What if Fake News Isn't the Real Problem on Social Media? Retrieved from https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/what-if-fake-news-isnt-the-real-problem-on-social-media/569711/
- Kasprak, A. (2020, March 5). 'Uncle With Masters Degree' Gets Facts Wrong in Coronavirus 'Announcement'. Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/03/05/uncle-coronavirus/
- Lazer, D. M. J., Baum, M. A., Benkler, Y., Berinsky, A. J., Greenhill, K. M., Menczer, F., et al. (2018). The science of fake news. Science, 359(6380), 1094–1096.
- Wardle, C. (2017, February 16). Fake news. It's complicated. Retrieved from https://medium.com/1st-draft/fake-news-its-complicated-d0f773766c79
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