It must be true – I saw it on the internet

Viral: Many posts say that both the Pope and Cristiano Ronaldo have the coronavirus. (They don’t.)

Can we defeat the misinformation virus? Efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic are being undermined by fake news and scams – and it is not the first crisis to be aggravated in this way.

For those who knew anything about Bill Gates, the message on social media was surprising to say the least. “I’m a strong believer that there is a spiritual purpose to everything that happens,” he wrote, sharing his thoughts on the Covid-19 pandemic, that all of us are connected and must help each other. Did this really come from the geeky tycoon, famous for his ruthless attitude to business?

The answer is no, it did not. The post – shared thousands of times, even on newspaper websites – had been written by somebody else and circulated under Gates’s name. It was just one example of the explosion of misleading information during the present crisis.

A fake message telling people to stay indoors because helicopters are spraying disinfectant to eradicate the coronavirus has appeared in Britain, Kenya, Italy, Russia, and Nepal. A video purporting to show a man being arrested by Italian police for ignoring the lockdown has been shared 750,000 times in India – but, actually, shows a man being arrested in Brazil for something completely different.

In some cases, criminals have been trying to make money from their deceptions. People have received messages – apparently, sent by the police – telling them that they have to pay a fine for leaving home without a good reason.

Rumours abound about the origins of Covid-19. Some claim that the virus was created in a Chinese laboratory and deliberately allowed to spread; others blame the US.

Then there is the false advice about combating the virus. Taking hot baths, avoiding ice cream, and even drinking particles of silver have all been wrongly touted as ways of escaping infection.

Now, governments are asking social media companies to help stop such rumours from spreading, while a charity called the Centre for Countering Digital Hate has launched a “Don’t Spread the Virus” campaign. It encourages people to report misinformation instead of sharing it.

“Some of it is produced by extremists seeking to undermine faith in government and experts, some by grifters seeking to sell false cures,” says the head of CCDH, Imran Ahmed. “And some are just sadly misinformed and think they’re doing the right thing by spreading the wrong advice.”

Can we defeat the misinformation virus?

Words as wildfire

Some say that the social media which spreads misinformation so effectively can also be used to stop it. Experts can trace the origins of a post and then prove that it is fake. For example, in a video allegedly showing patients lying on the floor of an Israeli hospital, the logos on their sheets and pillows proved that it was actually filmed in Spain.

Others argue that every time a rumour is scotched, a new one springs up to replace it. Besides, people who accept misinformation often believe that governments and media companies are conspiring to hide the truth, so they will be reluctant to believe any counter evidence. Nor would they dream of taking part in a campaign like “Don’t Spread the Virus”, which has government support.

You Decide

  1. What is the weirdest rumour you have ever heard?
  2. If you were a government minister, what steps would you take to stop the spread of misinformation?

Activities

  1. On two sides of paper, write a story about a rumour that the government is going to ban chocolate.
  2. Before social media, misinformation was often spread in the form of pamphlets. Imagine that you are living at the time of a major historical event, such as a war or the discovery of electricity. On two sides paper, produce an illustrated leaflet arguing that it is fake news.

Some People Say...

“One of the things that gives volume and amplitude to a rumour is that it satisfies people’s dreams and expectations about the world.”

James C Scott, American political scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Misinformation has been rife throughout history. In his epic poem The Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil writes of rumour: “She flourishes by speed, and gains strength as she goes.” Until a vaccine for polio was discovered in the 1950s, rumours about its causes abounded: ice-cream was thought to be a particular danger. In 1935, three people were killed during rioting in New York’s Harlem district after a rumour that a boy had been beaten to death. In fact, he had been arrested for shoplifting.
What do we not know?
Whether rumours can actually be helpful. If some people are not taking a dangerous situation seriously, then a story which frightens them could shock them into behaving more responsibly – even if it is not true. We don’t know if any of the rumours about the origins of the coronavirus will, in fact, turn out to have any truth.

Word Watch

Bill Gates
The founder of Microsoft, which has made him the world’s second-richest individual.
Eradicate
Wipe out, used particularly of diseases.
Purporting
Claiming or pretending.
Abound
Be many in number.
Touted
Offered in an energetic way, usually to persuade people to buy something.
Grifters
People who make money by deceiving people.
Scotched
Put an end to something. Hopscotch gets its name from the “scotches” (lines) you are not supposed to go over.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.