Rumors, Misinformation & Other Things Covid-19

Rumors, Misinformation & Other Things Covid-19

Ganga Subramanian, Writer

In the early hours of May 4th, an infamous video would make the rounds before eventually being taken down for good. The video in question, simply titled “Plandemic”, was a 26 minute video released by a small-time filmmaker, full of conspiracy theories and false research presented as facts. The subject of the video, Judy Mikovitz, a disgraced virologist, makes incredibly outrageous claims about Covid-19, like that face masks activate the virus. Soon after the creation of “Plandemic”, came “Plandemic 2”, the unfortunately named sequel, filled with more misinformation.   

“Plandemic” and “Plandemic 2”  are the latest pieces of viral fake news in a very long line, and it certainly will not be the last. Fake news has lasted for several decades, acting as a parasite preying off of the journalism industry, which is struggling to keep up. 

According to David Lazer, fake news is defined as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent,”. Basically, it is false information that mocks real news stories. It has the power to ruin several long-standing institutions and its spread is rampant. From Twitter bots to normal people, fake news is everywhere and can be spread by everyone and anyone. It is more important now than ever, especially with the current crisis and upcoming 2020 presidential election, to understand the psychology behind fake news. 

The Covid-19 crisis has affected our subconscious in more ways than we think, causing increasing levels of anxiety, social isolation, and an extreme divide in political opinion. This makes us more vulnerable to any news, regardless of how much truth it holds. “Increasing polarization means that more people are accepting news based on conspiracy theories etc. because they are surrounded by those who believe them” said Brown University professor Steven Sloman.

The group that is the most likely to believe rumors and misinformation are conspiracy theorists. Theorists have a harder time replacing false information with correct information even after they have been told that they were wrong. A lot of conspiracy theorists willfully reject scientific facts in order to believe in a conspiracy theory; sometimes, this can apply to misinformation as well. 

The spread of misinformation tends to occur through social media more than any other source. The features that make social media appealing are the same features that can be used to spread all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories. An instance of one of these features being misused is the creation of bots which are “designed to amplify the spread of fake news” according to David Lazer. They have the ability to attract a lot of accounts’ attention and to target big accounts on social media. These big accounts are often influential,  having the power to persuade many people that what they are sharing is true. 

Anything devoted to spreading fake news is problematic, especially in a time when proper communication is absolutely necessary. According to Md Saiful Islam and others in COVID-19- Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis, “The spread of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories not only affect the individuals but can also have consequences at a societal level, including the healthcare system”. Rumors, like the one that sparked the panic-buying at the beginning of the whole pandemic, had effects that rippled throughout the rest of the Covid-19 crisis. It led to a decrease in people who had the necessary resources (hand sanitizer, face masks, toilet paper), which in turn may have led to more coronavirus cases. Every rumor, conspiracy theory and piece of misinformation disseminated during the global pandemic leads to a reaction that negatively affects the individual. 

Although the Covid-19 crisis calls for proper communication, faith in mass media is at an all time low. According to David Lazer in The science of fake news, “General trust in the mass media has collapsed to historic lows in 2016, with 51% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans expressing, “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of trust in mass media as a news source.” Journalists have always been fighting against general dislike due to the occupation, but with the rise of more political divisiveness, it has become harder than ever to write in a market overrun with competitors. 

“Journalism is fighting for its livelihood in a monetary sense just to continue to exist,” Jason Beer, a teacher at Homestead, said. Local newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, as some have to sell themselves out in order to keep funds flowing. These institutions are incredibly important, as some of the most important investigative journalism happens here. The Jeffrey Epstein case, for example, was broke by a local newspaper first. 

Journalists have a huge task ahead of them, and it is only going to get more and more challenging as time passes. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply, “put truth under the microscope” according to Steven Sloman. It has created a more polarized and extremist atmosphere in the journalism industry, in which the only way for journalists to survive is to agree with their publisher. 

“The ultimate responsibility of a journalist is to write in such a way that they give the information that the public needs in order to be informed, but journalists bring (innate bias) to the table with them ultimately because we’re all human” Jamie Smith, a teacher at Homestead, said. 

The repercussions of this cause people to turn to alternate sources of news, like less trustworthy sites and social media, causing them to only receive information from sources that cater to their worldview. This creates an echo chamber, in which only what a person wants to see and hear is repeated back to them. 

Echo chambers are inherently dangerous because “people don’t get to test the validity of evidence, or their beliefs for that matter, because they tend to bounce beliefs off those who already agree with them and often don’t challenge ideas,” said Brown University professor Steven Sloman. A way to curb this is already being used in science culture: make it the norm to challenge pre-existing ideas even if you think that you are correct. 

This requires not just a change in individual belief, but in a community’s beliefs. “People are very reluctant to change their minds if it means disagreeing with the people around them.” Sloman said. It is often difficult for people to admit their own faults, but through fostering an environment in which it is okay to question your own beliefs, it can help people be more invested in finding the truth. It seems that a lot more people are more interested in furthering their own agenda. 

“If you don’t like what’s out there, people seem to cry fake news,”  Smith said.

This leads to a lack of shared reality, a world in which people only know half the truth. In tumultuous times like these when accurate and reliable information is key to maintaining order, fake news has the ability to create confusion and cause mass paranoia when there is no true need for it. 

Even more concerning is the political ramifications of misinformation. Politically motivated organizations have used fake news  to persuade the people to believe their side. The use of fake news can be traced all the way to the 16th century, as it was already a big problem for Renaissance thinkers. A more recent instance is the British spreading of misinformation about German atrocities in World War I in order to drum up support for the war. It backfired in the second World War, but it still stands as a prominent example of the use of politically motivated fake news. 

Fast forward to the early 1900s and suddenly yellow journalism is on the rise. Using tactics like scare headlines, absurd pictures, false evidence, and dramatic sympathy for the underdog, some believe that yellow journalism is the predecessor to fake news. The difference between then and now is the medium of how fake news is spread. Back then, it was newspapers; now, it is the Internet. 

There are two different types of solutions to the fake news issue. The first falls under solutions aimed at individuals. Solutions aimed at individuals have been around for a long time: fact-checking sites, encouraging adults to get news from multiple sources, etc. 

“If you can teach students young how to be discerning about what they see and hear and read, you could ultimately correct it.” Smith said. 

Solutions like these are hard to test, as it takes waiting a whole generation to find out if they are effective. Plus, it puts all the pressure into the individual’s hands, making it their choice to be informed properly. 

The other type of solution is aimed at the institutions. These solutions take the responsibilities out of the individuals’ hands and puts them into the hands of big companies and industries. Social media companies have said that they have made efforts to monitor misinformation on their sites, but there is no way to know for sure considering what social media refuses to divulge to the public. Another attempted method is to place misinformation next to the correction of any fake information in a news story. This is a faulty method because, often, the misinformation, not the correction, will be remembered. Institutions have to be very careful in how they go about limiting misinformation, as the line between protecting and censoring is very thin. 

Fake news has always been a problem, but it has only recently been discussed to this extent. As technology evolves, so will the transmission of misinformation, and we will constantly have to be critical of what we read, see or hear. At the very least, the Covid-19 pandemic will be over by that point, and we can focus on fixing our problem with misinformation.