Threat of fake news in the wake of coronavirus pandemic

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 00:00 |
Medical staff push a coronavirus patient on a stretcher towards a French army medical helicopter in Strasbourg, on March 30, 2020, to be evacuated to a German hospital. Photo/AFP

Hugo Mercier

In times of crisis, misinformation abounds. In the wake of coronavirus pandemic, fake news has been in plenty—the virus can be cured by ingesting fish-tank cleaning products.

Covid-19 was developed in Chinese (or American, or French) labs. Cristiano Ronaldo and the pope tested positive.

Why does misinformation flourish? Does all this fake news mean that people are hopelessly gullible, their anxiety making them receptive to the most blatant baloney?

Hardly. In many cases, people actually share fake news for fun. We are titillated by gross stories.

This follows a familiar pattern: in 2018 the most popular fake story on Facebook was about a lottery winner dumping manure on his ex-boss’s lawn, the second most popular about Barbara Bush dying.

In any case, believing that Ronaldo has been infected, or that the virus came from a failed biological experiment isn’t all that consequential: it doesn’t make a difference in how we behave.

Fans who believed Ronaldo to be sick might still have been thrilled to shake his hand; and no one is besieging virology labs to demand the truth.

However, the more worrying fake news regarding Covid-19 is about potential cures.

A few days ago, a man died in the US after ingesting a product meant to clean fish tanks, as it contains chloroquine, a drug currently being tested (inconclusively so far) as a treatment for Covid-19, and hailed by some as a miracle cure. 

Still, even if fake news isn’t as consequential as is often feared, it’s better to be able to spot it (at least to avoid looking like an idiot when sharing on social media).

A reliable cue is the source: many successful pieces of fake news circulating on WhatsApp about Covid-19 start with “A friend who has an uncle in Wuhan” or “A friend whose dad works at the Centre for Disease Control.”

Such attributions to a (supposedly credible) friend of a friend have always been a staple of rumours and urban legends, and they are a reliable way of telling that a message is bogus.

More generally, an online search – about the supposed causes, effects, or cures for Covid-19 – provides reliable information in nearly all cases, especially if several well-recognised sources concur.

As in every other crisis situation, the main issue isn’t that people gullibly accept whatever they’re told.

On the contrary, the problem is that people fail to absorb recommendations. Time and again, helpful warnings have gone unheeded and advice ignored.

Why? People might believe the information is mistaken, or even manipulative.

Some mistrust towards politicians is unfortunately understandable, since a number of governments haven’t been fully transparent.

For instance, widespread mistrust of officials led 100,000 residents of New Orleans to ignore the evacuation warnings and suffer the full force of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

The present situation is no exception. The day after the French government announced that all schools would close, and pressed the population to practise physical distancing, my aunt went to play slots at the casino. Parisian markets were crowded.

Even that most emblematic of supposed panic reactions—stockpiling pasta or toilet paper—reflects a lack of trust: a lack of trust in the authorities’ promise that supply lines are sound; and a lack of trust in others to refrain from stockpiling.

Humans are by nature careful about the messages they receive. When evaluating information, we first compare what we’re told (or read) with our existing beliefs: if it fits, we tend to accept the information.

Fake news takes advantage of this by reinforcing our prejudices: drinkers believe that alcohol is a cure, and racists blame Chinese scientists. 

By contrast, any message that clashes with our personal experience, in particular if it calls for some costly action, is initially rejected.

Early warnings were thus, for many, difficult to hear: confinement seemed drastic in reaction to a threat that hadn’t affected us or anyone we knew yet.

Overcoming this initial reaction requires trust: a recognition that whoever is addressing us is competent, and isn’t trying to manipulate us.

This is why checking information is so important. Not so much because it helps us avoid misinformation.

Checking is crucial to reinforcing our belief in real news, and in sound advice.

We must strive to be vigilant, but being vigilant is only useful it if helps us remain open to valuable information. —The article first appeared on

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