Detecting the Virus Online: A Guide To Spotting Fake COVID-19 News

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For many of us, coronavirus is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, leaving many with feelings of anxiety, fear and despair. However, it is within this climate of uncertainty that disinformation and fake news thrives. We may feel like we are helping others by sharing what passes through our social media feeds, but a large volume of misleading messages, voice notes and images are being quickly spread. Much of this information has proven to be false, and some is specifically designed with malicious intent. If we want to stop the impact of online disinformation, we must first know what to look for. Here are a few examples:

(Image: Screenshot from BuzzfeedNews)

Psychological Social Distancing

Distancing language is a common feature for when a liar attempts to distance themselves from their lie. This viral text message states ‘My friend said (sic) about the army thing who has a friend in Parliament and that’s his source.’

The message then continues to outline how the British Army are covertly locking down London and states that supermarkets will be open for a few hours a day, with permission needed to go outside. ‘He said they’re going to be strict about everything’. It’s apparent that the distancing language is used to give credibility to the forthcoming lies.

Remember,  if the information contains distancing language, it is most likely false. It is highly unlikely that your friend of a friend has a inside Government source.

Unknown Sources

If you have received something that look like a random screenshot of text that supposedly contains useful COVID-19 updates, check the source. If the source is not immediately apparent, attempt to find it.

In the absence of a source, the information is most probably fake. Any reliable information will be typically branded and/or labelled by the author. If a source is named, you should then consider how reliable the source may be. 

A widely circulated WhatsApp voice note, supposedly originating from an NHS worker, explains that ‘one third of the 900 deaths will be babies, children and teenagers with no underlying health issues. The NHS are overwhelmed and unable to respond to home emergencies. People will be told to manage their symptoms at home and no ambulances will be sent to patients, even those who are struggling to breath.’  West Midlands Ambulance Service have branded the recording as “Fake News” and have encouraged people to stop sharing it.

It is highly improbable that your grandmother or a neighbour down the road has stumbled across an NHS insider with a voice note on WhatsApp containing vital, life-saving information. 

Emotionally-Charged Language and Satire

Labour NEC Chair Andi Fox shared the satirical conspiracy theory as fact in this since deleted Tweet. (Image: The Independent)

Our culture of instant gratification contributes to impulsive sharing. Popular fake stories will include emotionally resonating buzz words and exaggerated language designed to invoke a reaction. The more emotionally arousing and controversially divisive the material, the higher the share rate. Click-bait articles with sensationalist headlines and punchy, emotional imagery are popular formats for disinformers.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently been the subject of a fake news campaign after an article published by The Dorset Eye gained traction, resulting in #OfficialSecretsAct trending on Twitter. The story stated that NHS workers were forced to sign the Official Secrets Act and were told to fabricate stories that the PM was ill with COVID-19. 

The Dorset Eye have since apologised and edited the article, stating that ‘we realise now that this article may well be satire.’ Sections had already been taken out of any satirical context and shared as facts, with many believing the claims to be true. Phrases like ‘Official Secrets Act’ and ‘hoodwinked’, and headlines such as ‘Was Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 condition contrived?’, are certainly attention-grabbing, but we should always make sure to read beyond the headline. Make sure you’re aware of that language being used and read the entire article with an air of scepticism.

Misappropriated Media

(Image: Screenshot from BuzzfeedNews)

A recent fake news story that quickly grew in popularity was just prior to the military giving logistical support to the NHS. Photos of British Army cadets marching through Clapham were published alongside claims that the military were locking Britain down covertly. This was debunked, but not before it was shared by thousands of users believing it to be true.

A simple reverse search will reveal if the image appears anywhere else online and will reveal any misattribution. Media can often be true but used in a completely different context to the original. 

In a similar case, a video showing body bags lying on the floor of various rooms inside a hospital was claimed to have been filmed in St Mary’s Hospital, London. This is incorrect: the hospital trust confirmed it wasn’t even filmed in London. It was filmed in Ecuador and then repurposed to give substance to the claims that the Government are hiding the true coronavirus death count. 

In short, always look for primary sources and find out if its been widely reported by other media outlets. Take a second glance at the language used, and never share click-bait stories without reading the entire piece. Question any accompanying imagery and video, and even try an Image Reverse Search to determine its authenticity. Check URLs for any spelling errors indicate a dodgy site masquerading as a trusted source, and remember, this list is not exhaustive. 

In our culture of widespread social conformity and instant gratification, irrespective of how we receive the information, we have to slow down and think before we share. 

Image: Pate / FT