The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has a competitor, and that is fake news.
Unverified, misleading and false information related to novel coronavirus has been spreading around the world, referred to as an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.
When news and social media platforms published the U.S. President Donald Trump’s dangerous musing about using disinfectant as a cure for coronavirus, it was unequivocally denounced by medical experts.
So were claims from elected members of Indian state assemblies that pseudoscience cures, such as cow urine, could be used to combat the outbreak.
But these unsubstantiated articulations are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Researchers at the Bruno Kessler Foundation analysed 112 million public social posts related to the pandemic and found that 40 per cent came from unreliable sources, while 42 per cent were circulated by bots.
At a time when a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is still in the works, various governments and health organisations have been imploring people to rely on official and trustworthy sources of information during the pandemic.
Fake news is not new. But its rise from the fringes of the information highway to the mainstream has become a cause for concern – particularly during elections and times of crisis.
In Australia, it is images and videos with text that are being used during COVID-19 to create or propagate misleading or false information on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat and YouTube.
Spurious medical advice and racist posts targeting China have been popular categories of fake news posts.
One Facebook post, shared 44,000 times, used a Dettol label/image to claim that the product’s maker may have been aware of the novel coronavirus before it broke out in China in December 2019.
AFP Fact Check notes the post being misleading because Dettol’s claim of being effective against a general group of viruses was not tested on the novel coronavirus.
A series of Instagram posts, which have been viewed over 160,000 times, promote and seek to sell a drug made from Cinchona tree bark to help fight the virus. AAP Fact Check found the claim to be false.
Another Facebook post, shared 25,000 times, purporting to demonstrate how to differentiate between Chinese and Indian products – with a view to rekindle Australian manufacturing – was exposed by AAP Fact Check as being malicious.
Another Facebook post that has been shared 56,000 times uses the real video of an altercation in a Melbourne Big W store to claim that Chinese nationals have been banned from Australian supermarkets.
This video was debunked by RMIT ABC Fact Check as being misleading and false.
Among the COVID-19 related fake news items now debunked are several full-page advertisements taken out by billionaire businessman and former MP Clive Palmer announcing that his foundation had purchased nearly 33 million hydroxychloroquine doses as a donation for Australians.
The advertisement implies a link between the anti-malaria drug being made available by the government to doctors and flattening of the death curve in Australia, which is false.
In Australia, the RMIT ABC Fact Check is one of the units that checks the accuracy of claims made by public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in the public debate.
Apart from being responsible to the parliament, RMIT ABC Fact Check is also among 93 signatories of the “Code of Principles” advocated by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at Poynter.
The IFCN principles focus on nonpartisan, fairness and transparency in the fact-checking processes and methodology.
The IFCN signatories also need to be transparent about their funding sources and provide details of all key personnel working for the organisation.
Some of the other signatories include AFP Fact Checking from France, Boom and NewsMobile Fact Checker from India, AP Fact Check and PolitiFact from the USA, and Tirdo.id from Indonesia.
To dilute the impact of fake news, a number of news media, philanthropic and government agencies have been funding fact-checking activities across the world with a mission to discredit false and unverified information being created and shared on social platforms.
Duke Reporters’ Lab claims presently there are 237 fact-checkers operating in 78 countries.
But questions remain about the efficacy of fact checking in combating the spread fake news and misleading information online, particularly without the corrective steps taken by social media platforms.
In recent times, Facebook and Twitter have labelled Trump’s posts as ‘partly false’ or ‘manipulated media’.
To combat coronavirus information, WhatsApp too has reduced the number of connections with whom one can share information on their platform.
Additionally, research found that most fact-checking organisations had minimal online presence, and they did not reach a large number of media users, who needed to know the truth about the posts before sharing them.
The fact-checking efforts are also miniscule in comparison to the traffic created by those with vested interests.
COVID-19 has increased awareness about the scourge of fake news, particularly with enhanced fact-checking activities and their coverage in the mainstream media.
Social media technology companies too are coming under public and government scrutiny to do more to combat the circulation of fake news on their platforms.
Hopefully, this increased level of public discussion about fake news and its adverse impact on society will have created sufficient momentum to turn the tide on the thoughtless sharing of unverified information.
Dr Usha M. Rodrigues is a Senior Lecturer for the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University.