“Fake news” in the corona-era

What exactly is fake news? How is it different from the more verifiable terms misinformation and disinformation?

Misinformation is information that is not true, but is believed to be true by the the person who disseminated it.

Disinformation is also false information, but it differs from misinformation in that the person who disseminates it, knows that it isn’t true. It is a deliberate lie, often with malicious intent.

(Hint: you can remember the difference by thinking of the word “diss.Disinformation often attempts to diss someone.)

Fake news has no formally accepted definition – in fact its meaning has changed significantly over the past 4 years. Previously, the term fake news was occasionally used for misinformation, but mainly for disinformation. A famous disinformation example is the “Pizzagate” incident, an attempt to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election in which candidate Hillary Clinton was accused of leading a child-abuse ring based in a Washington, DC pizzeria.

The term gained popularity during this election, but changed character when Trump began describing everything that he didn’t like in the media as “fake news.” One of the first examples of this was when he called reports of low attendance at his inauguration “fake news,” despite factual evidence of the meager turnout.

This makes the term “fake news” confusing and unhelpful, as it was previously mainly used for false information (both mis– and dis-), but is now frequently used for true information that someone doesn’t like. We should therefore avoid using the term “fake news” completely, and instead use “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

So where on the “information disorder spectrum” (as UNESCO calls the range of information pollution) are the many lies being spread about the corona-virus? Much of this is misinformation about the virus’ origin, prevention or treatments, spread by people – even presidents – who believe it to be true. This false information is often partly based on true information that has been twisted or reworked, as opposed to being purely fabricated. Some examples of later-debunked misinformation:

  • Vitamin D can prevent the corona-virus (spread on social media in Thailand)
  • Africans are not susceptible to corona-virus (spread on WhatsApp in Nigeria)
  • Drinking cow urine can cure COVID-19 (spread by a politician in India)
  • 5G towers cause corona-virus (spread in a French blog)
  • Your faith and God will protect you from contracting corona-virus (spread by several religious groups to their followers)
  • Injecting disinfectants can effectively treat the virus (spread by you know who, on live TV)

Some of the false information we hear about the corona-virus however is created and disseminated with malicious intent. Some examples of disinformation and various related conspiracy theories :

  • The US is the source of the virus, and they’re using it as “hybrid warfare” against China and Iran (spread on Iranian TV)
  • North Korea and China conspired together to create the corona-virus (spread on Fox News in the US)
  • The virus is a biological weapon created by the CIA to destroy China’s economy (spread on social media in Russia)
  • The corona-virus came from an accidental leak at a Chinese biological weapon lab in Wuhan (spread in some American news sources)

The spread of both mis- and disinformation can obviously have serious consequences, including injury, death or international conflict. WHO has therefore created a webpage to provide factual health-related information to bust many of the circulating myths about the virus.

Spreading false information is easier than ever – just click SHARE on your favorite social media. Research has shown that false information, because it can be so unbelievable and scary, spreads much faster and deeper than true information.

So what can you do to prevent the spread of false information?

  • Think critically!
  • Vote.
  • Check facts before you share posts on social media, even if you think that the information might truly be helpful to your friends. (There are several fact-checking websites out there, such as www.factcheck.org and www.snopes.com )
  • Be wary of anonymous sources.
  • Use trusted sources of information.
  • Check also the recommendations and advice provided on official government websites or international organizations such as WHO.
  • Tell your friends who spread dubious information to delete it.
  • And if you’re a college student, look at your library’s webpages for useful information about evaluating sources, and attend  courses offered by your wonderful librarians! 🙂

This is a pandemic. It’s affecting the entire world. If we want to defeat it, we have to be smart. So why am I posting this on my blog about information literacy? Because thinking critically is a huge part of being information literate!



First article is (nearly) done!

My data

This poor blog has been neglected for quite a while, since I’ve been concentrating all my efforts on analyzing data and writing the first article for my dissertation. As opposed to a monograph dissertation, I’m doing a “compilation thesis,” which is a series of articles (at least three), together with a summary section (kappa).

The first article, with working title “Knowing and doing: The development and testing of information literacy measures,” has been an enormous effort, as it’s based on data from several different samples, collected at different times. I wrote it, for the most part, together with my advisor Torstein, who has provided excellent guidance throughout this process. Just the right combination of “here’s the answer” and “here’s how to do it yourself.” (Plus a good dose of neurons, logic, experience, and patience!)

If I’d written this article alone, it would’ve been done much sooner, but it would’ve been much worse. I’ve learned so much through this process, especially about how to structure an article based on empirical data, and the logic behind each section. It sounds so easy – Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion – but it was actually quite difficult to separate these sections while preserving readability.

This article could’ve potentially been several, since each of its 3 main goals is nearly enough for an article in itself (especially the first):

  1. “to develop information literacy measures that are applicable across academic disciplines, and that are brief and easy to administer, but still likely to be reliable and to support valid interpretations”
  2. “to determine whether what students know about IL corresponds to what they actually do when finding, evaluating and using sources”
  3. “to help illuminate the question of whether IL should be conceived of as a coherent, unitary construct, or a set of disparate and more loosely related components”

Just look at 2 terms in the first goal: reliable and valid. I had no idea how important these concepts are when developing measurement instruments, how many analyses would have to be performed in order to “conclude” anything about reliability and validity, and how many words would be needed to describe these analyses.

We’ve had to economize with words, which surprisingly, is quite difficult. The journal we’re aiming to publish it in has a limit of 8000 words, and we’re currently at ca. 7900.

The research is churning in my head whether I’m sleeping or skiing. I’m proud of myself for being disciplined, concentrated, and persevering throughout the process of collecting and analyzing the data, and then writing the article. Nothing has come easily – I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished. Luckily, I haven’t had too many other things going on for the past months (social isolation suits me just fine these days!), and could immerse myself in my work without losing track along the way.

The next blog post will be about the importance of information literacy the age of Covid-19. 🙂