“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!



2 thoughts on ““Fake news” in the corona-era”

  1. Excellent! Very good- systematic and understandable for (almost?) everybody! Love it, Ellen

  2. Ellen, thank you for communicating clearly about this most key fundamental issue of misinformation, its deep impact, and actionable next steps. I’m looking forward to more!

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