As our news feeds are oversaturated with DIY mask tutorials and troll-worthy conspiracy theories fill the spaces previously occupied with dog videos and food-based ASMR, we need high-quality and empathetic journalism more than ever.
Fake news has set its course for the millions of people finding themselves confined to their homes — and thus screens of varying sizes — and misinformation spreads as the virus does, benefiting those who are feasting off the masses’ lacking media literacy and willingness to believe whatever soundbite or pull quote is shoved before them.
In the United Kingdom, conspiracy theories — backed by celebrities — linking 5G technology to the rise of coronavirus have resulted in attacks on 5G masts by arsonists. Meanwhile, televangelists in the United States have promoted products like colloidal silver as cures for the disease.
In February, the World Health Organization referred to our current situation as an “infodemic” — where there is an “overabundance” of information, thus making it harder for folks to sift through and determine what is accurate and what is not.
So, we as media consumers have no choice but to be more conscious of what we are reading, hearing and watching.
While being skeptical of information we come across is an effective way of fending off basic exploitative misinformation, when misinformation is mixed in with politics, enacting such measures can be easier said than done.
You see, our basic instinct dictates that we reach for information that fits our existing system of ideas. Psychologists call this tendency of ours “confirmation bias.” Those who deal in politically slanted misinformation are aware of this, which is why the propagation of deceitful lies will not stop — even when lives are at stake.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a goldmine for propagandist groups like QAnon — far-right conspiracy theorists that suggest the President is leading the "good fight."
While most of the nation — and indeed, the world — looks to experienced and widely respected medical professionals like Dr. Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — for information and calmness amidst all the chaos, QAnon supporters see an enemy in him. QAnoners have ramped up conspiracy theories accusing Dr. Fauci of working with Hillary Clinton to bring down the President and the precious economy. Such developments have resulted in Dr. Fauci having to receive enhanced personal security for fears over his safety.
The pandemic has also seen hyper-partisan news networks like OAN and Fox News spring into action, promoting similar content. OAN White House Correspondent Chanel Dion alleged that COVID-19 had been created in a North Carolinian lab in 2015 without solid evidence, while Fox News host Sean Hannity downplayed the severity of the outbreak on national television on many occasions. Indeed, Fox News’ concerning coverage of the outbreak forced 74 journalism professors and working journalists to address a letter to Fox News heads Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch about it.
Coverage by such news networks may have shifted towards a more accurate portrayal of the severity of the pandemic in recent weeks, but the damage inflicted by misinformation cannot be reversed.
At a more basic level, social media has also been swamped with COVID-19 coping mechanisms, at-home treatments and prevention methods, and goldmine after goldmine of biased judgements and conspiracies.
While social media is a necessary tool in our hyper-connected lives on the internet, it is kryptonite to the critical thinking and fact checking aspects of our consumption. We find ourselves hours-deep in Reddit threads and Youtube videos without a sliver of truth, without consciously thinking about the implications.
According to a 2019 study by Daniel A. Effron and Medha Raj, there may be a correlation between repeatedly consuming fake news and decreasing moral condemnation the content receives. In other words, the more unrestricted scrolling and mindless reading we do, less anti-fake news attitudes arise.
We become acclimated to the fact that everything we read on the internet could be entirely false, and it bothers us less and less. Third-person effects step in — a phenomena where an individual believes that mass media messages have greater influence on others versus themselves — and we become over-confident in our factual instincts.
It’s similar to the swaths of teenagers and young adults ignoring social distancing, actually. We believe that we as individuals are immune to things that the masses are susceptible to — be it a highly contagious virus or the psychological trap that is partisan disinformation.
Given this challenge, journalists have been forced to either give in or step up, to stay committed to ethical reporting or to secede to the allure of clickbait. The honest are not always rewarded, but we as consumers can change that.
Freedom of Speech means that we cannot just appeal to shut down these voices. But it also means we must hand power back to the strongest voice that there used to be — traditional journalism and the ethics that came with it. We must give power back to the honest to counteract the incentive to create falsified, click-worthy content.
The problem of misinformation has now been around for nearly half a decade. It has been the subject of much discussion, so much so the word "misinformation" was deemed the "Word of the Year" in 2018 by dictionary.com.
However, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that will likely leave a mark on humanity for eternity, it has become apparent that mere discussions about misinformation cannot suffice. We, as consumers of media, need to take action.
By adapting our consumption and prioritizing objective information-sharing — and reflecting this in our personal sharing habits — we have the power to not only drag ourselves up from the mucky waters of deceit and manipulation, but those around us who are willing to listen as well.
Encourage discourse surrounding high-stakes topics, cross-reference information being presented to you, and remember that many publications do — unfortunately — have stakes in the reporting of certain subjects.
Newsrooms have been shrinking rampantly in recent years. It is time for us to support local and national newsrooms that stand as beacons of traditional journalism and uphold journalistic integrity. Donate to local, independent newspapers. Subscribe to The New York Times or The Washington Post. Help the truth cut through the din of fake news.
While it may be difficult to avoid the Facebook rants and Snapchat stories about new pandemic developments, refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for official information on COVID-19 and its spread.
As the pandemic reveals every glaring deficiency in the way we’d been doing things prior, let us learn and improve. In this unprecedented time, let us set a precedent for the future so that the next time the world is united by crisis, we find ourselves better placed to face such challenges.
For tips on fact-checking and spotting fake news, check out this tool from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Anupras is a freshman studying Computer Science. Sam is a senior studying Journalism with certificates in Development Economics and Environmental Studies. How have you interacted with misinformation and fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.