30 March 2020 16:35
The pace at which the ongoing COVID-19 crisis evolves has left governments, media and experts struggling to adapt their communication strategies to effectively ensure the public remain properly informed and engaged about the pandemic. Exacerbating this challenge is the growing undercurrent of conspiracy theories and disinformation about the virus. Indeed, the risk posed by the circulation of misleading information was recognised by the Irish government with ministers urging public caution when engaging with information encountered on social media.
Those who spread disinformation range from mischievous trolls to conspiracy theorists, but regardless of their motivations, the results of their work is a muddying of the waters in a worldwide health crisis in which clarity is key.
Edelman recently conducted a special trust barometer report on COVID-19 across ten countries (over the week of March 6th-10th). Some 74 percent of respondents were concerned about false information surrounding the pandemic, but when asked about trusted sources, people valued employers as a source of information over both the government and the media. This perhaps reflects the fact that workers have been relying on updates from employers and are concerned about their jobs.
The report also found that a third of respondents felt compelled to check for news about the pandemic several times a day. While medical experts and mainstream news organisations were among respondents' most trusted sources of information, there was also a notably high level of trust (63%) in "people like yourself".
These findings could go some way toward shedding light on the allure of viral rumours about the virus. Much of the disinformation that has circulated on WhatsApp – claiming insider knowledge about new measures and new cases – is forwarded by peers.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theory groups on Facebook have incorporated the pandemic into their existing theories. In particular, anti-vaccine groups have cast doubt on the legitimacy of COVID-19 measures.
The UK's Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) is tracking over 50 social media groups that are actively perpetuating a range of ill-supported rumours and conspiracy theories concerning the pandemic. These groups have a collective membership of more than 800,000. These theories include claims that China started the virus deliberately and the promotion of supposed miracle cures such as probiotic yogurt and lemons.
When the CCDH reported these groups to Facebook, they found the social media giant frustratingly reluctant to deal with them adequately. Facebook has allowed much of the disinformation to remain online, occupying the same digital space as verified sources.
Urgency is the recurring tone throughout many of these disinformation messages as they capitalise on people's concern for loved ones and desire for new information.
Where mainstream news and government communications must occasionally be speculative and unspecific in their assessment of a rapidly evolving situation, social media groups can fill the gap with definitive, though erroneous, assertions. These disinformation groups promise frequent and intriguing answers to the avalanche of questions raised by the pandemic, answers apparently offered by individuals weary and wary of the 'infodemic' of frightening and frustratingly general news on COVID-19, ie. "people like yourself."
Colm Kearns is a Post Doctoral Researcher at FuJo in Dublin City University.