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COVID-19: Why do people create fake news and why do others want to believe it so badly?

  • In a world where the term ‘fake news’ is actually comprised in the Cambridge English dictionary, and the ever-increasing prevalence of online stories seems to be endless, it is not surprising that false stories are continuously popping up in regards to the coronavirus pandemic every day.

    However, why is it that so many people seem to want to believe the fake news?

    Internet privacy and ‘fake news’ expert Jo Marie O’Reilly said that this is due to confirmation bias, which is “the idea that we will be far more likely to take as gospel, information the confirms our pre-existing beliefs.”

    For example, if you already believe that vaccines are inherently dangerous, you will be more inclined to believe anything that reinforces that belief, no matter how outlandish.

    Dr Roberta Babb, clinical psychologist from Third Eye Psychology commented that it is usually because it comes from a trusted source like their friend or family: “This is due to the belief that their friend/family member has their best interests at heart and is looking out for them during a challenging time.”

    Dr Babb added that the ‘pass it on’ instructions often attached with such messages “taps into people's anxieties (and other emotions), fears and uncertainties which are triggered or evoked during a crisis or significant event.  It provides certainty (during a period of uncertainty and misinformation) as it offers a solution in the form of information or guidance and offers the forwarding individual a sense of agency and movement (which is a defence against feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness).  

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    “It also allows the forwarding individual to feel that there are explicitly and clearly demonstrating their care and concern for important people in their lives which is a natural social bond and relationship strengthener.”

    Of course this isn’t always the case. In fact, Ofcom recently reported that “BBC services are the most-used source of information about the virus by some margin.”

    Four-in-five people surveyed by the media regulator during the first week of lockdown in the UK said they use the BBC as a source of news and average daily news viewing across all broadcast channels was up by 92% in March 2020 compared to March 2019.

    Social media is used by half, while 15% said they use closed platforms such as Whatsapp groups and Facebook messenger for information about the virus.

    This is where the danger zone lies.

    Dr Roberta Babb is a clinical psychologist at Third Eye Psychology

    Ofcom also found that almost half of UK adults have been exposed to false claims about the virus. Most (55%) ignore these, but few look into the details of the claims. 15% are using fact-checking tips from the media, such as the BBC’s website, while a similar proportion of 13% are double-checking with friends and family. One in 14 people are forwarding on false or misleading information about the virus.

    But that one person out of 14 could end up reaching hundreds more if one person of the 14 people they send the information to sends it on again, and so on and so on.

    Fake news can take many forms and some themes remain consistently more dominant than others. For example, 5G conspiracy theorists seem to have a louder voice now, with many new closed social media groups of like-minded individuals on the topic blaming 5G masts for the coronavirus outbreak.

    The trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, Mobile UK stated that these theories are “baseless and are not grounded in accepted scientific theory.”

    Why is it then, that so many ordinary people become aggressive when it is pointed out that the news is more than likely false, or not from a reputable source?

    Dr Babb continued: “The probing questions highlight that the forwarding individual did not complete their due diligence on the information and was duped into believing the misinformation.”

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    This can lead to the person feeling vulnerable and embarrassed, or anxious about how people may perceive them in the future, that Dr Babb said leads to “Shame Anger” which “is easier to access and express as it is a stronger emotion which often mobilises action which can protect the individual from feeling the painful emotions.”

    Finally, why would a person even want to create fake news, or as Dr Babb prefers to coin in, ‘false information’ in the first place?

    She concluded: “For some people the generation of “fake news” has financial rewards and status rewards – such as fame and notoriety.  For other people it could be to push particularly political ideologies. It could stem from more malicious origins and the ‘fake news’ is intended to push discriminatory agendas, oppress members or sections of society and hurt people.

    “People may also feel powerful knowing that they can influence or manipulate people through the information they create and disseminate, and gain pleasure from watching the impact their falsely generated news has upon people and the world.”

    It doesn’t help that social media influencers are now at an all-time high, weighing in their judgements when it is often unwarranted and inappropriate.

    It can be powerful and useful when such online personalities give their young, impressionable viewers sound advice regarding the pandemic, but also; they are not experts, so what right do they have?

    Thankfully, Ofcom also then found that the least trusted sources of news are social media and closed groups, where between one in five and one in four users say they trust the news and information about Covid-19 that they find there. 95% of people are mainly putting their trust in the official NHS and WHO websites, with traditional broadcasters following closely behind.

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    99% of adults online are getting news and information about coronavirus at least once a day, while one in four are doing so 20 or more times each day. But more than one in five (22%) say they are trying to avoid news about the pandemic.  

    Every one of these people is at danger of being the recipients of fake news, even those actively trying to stay away from news. Nearly everyone has a social media account, or are part of a Whatsapp group, and no matter how hard you try to avoid coronavirus, information about it seeps in. That’s why it is now important more than ever before to be wary of false information and questionable sources, even if you think it is from someone you can trust.

    In conclusion, stay home and stay safe physically first and foremost, but stay alert and aware as we are spending arguably more time than ever online and trapped in our own heads. For your own mental health, stop fake news in its tracks before you feel it is becoming your reality.

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    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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