In the past several weeks, I have had various people reach out to ask me about the impact of fake news on social media related to COVID-19 on consumers. Anyone with a social media account has no doubt seen at least one example of this. From the meaning of COVID-19 to it being predicted by Nostradamus or “The Simpsons,” fake news about COVID-19 is spreading almost just as fast as the virus itself. While fake news is nothing new, the consequences of such news related to COVID-19 demonstrates we have another epidemic moving alongside the current global pandemic.
As can be expected based on previous research on fake news and stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, we were warned about an increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans by the FBI in March. We have since witnessed a stark increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, such as when a 51-year-old Asian American woman was attacked while taking a city bus in the Bronx. In addition to instances such as this, fake news related to COVID-19 can negatively impact measures people are taking to try and prevent the spread of the virus, their own physical health, as well as their mental health.
If people actually believe that sipping water every 15 minutes can cure or prevent the virus, then people may stop taking measures recommended by the CDC that are aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. These include hand washing, social distancing, wearing masks in public, covering our own coughs or sneezes, and cleaning and disinfecting our homes. At a more extreme consequence, believing that a chemical is a treatment for the virus, when it is not scientifically proven, led a couple in Arizona to take chloroquine phosphate, leading to hospitalization and death. Additionally, believing that COVID-19 is a hoax can lead to people behaving as such, taking minimal to no measures to prevent the spread of the virus as well as sharing that belief online, leading not only to contracting the illness but also dying from it.
Believing fake news related to COVID-19 can lead to increases in anxiety, stress, and even depression as people navigate through the societal changes taking place to “flatten the curve.” These include stay-at-home orders, curfews, and nonessential businesses closing. With this comes many families now unemployed, furloughed, or trying to work from home while now assisting with the home bound public education of their children. Bills are due, and while many companies and businesses are working with those financially impacted by the coronavirus, some are not. Families need to purchase groceries and other needed items for their households, but once they arrive in their full armor for the coronavirus, they find store shelves bear, with needed items completely gone, such as toilet paper and disinfectant wipes. They search the aisles getting what they can find for their family but it likely isn’t enough to last a full week. This new life that we are experiencing is stressful enough and anxiety is clearly on the rise. Adding beliefs such as Harvard Professor Charles Lieber sold the coronavirus to China or that the seasonal cold you had last year was actually COVID-19 can lead to confusion over what information is true or false. These beliefs can also lead to an increase in government skepticism as well as skepticism over hard news sources. Those beliefs also compile on top of the current anxiety and stress and can amplify those mental health struggles as you not only have to go out prepared for battle to go to the grocery store but also in your own mind when you are exposed to the never ending information presented to consumers about COVID-19.
Generally what we think of as fake news is primarily spread via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Instagram among others (Mihailidis & Viotty, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2018). Fake news is hard for some people to identify and can create confusion about what is true, doubt about accurate information, reliance on falsehoods, and is continuously shared among members of the public unknowingly (Jang & Kim, 2018; Rapp & Salovich, 2018). With the rapid dissemination of fake news through social media, users are bombarded with false information on a regular basis. And much of this false information is based on the agendas of partisan news coverage (Vargo et al., 2017). Usually, when consumers learn information via fake news that information is persistent and long-lasting (Jeong-woo et al., 2019). It has more of an impact on consumers than information from hard news sources, likely because of its sensational nature and shock value (Wright et al., in press).
But it isn’t just the obvious (or not-so-obvious) fake news that is problematic. There are plenty of hard news sources that clearly report information based on specific political agendas or other forms of bias (de Zuniga et al., 2012; Figenshou & Thorbjornsrud, 2015). There are also numerous instances of hard news sources using staging in their news coverage, such as the use of mannequins as coronavirus patients. Staging news in any way only leads to distrust in the news source. Additionally, when governmental agencies change their tune on effective preventative measures related to COVID-19, such as when the CDC first stated that the public did not need to wear a mask to now recommending that everyone wear a mask in public, skepticism of the government, of science, and of hard news increases. If people begin to view hard news as fake because of staging scenes, slanted or biased reporting, or contradictory recommendations, then, to them, what is fake news must now be real news.
While research has demonstrated that there are specific consumer characteristics that may make them a little more susceptible to believing fake news, including being White, male, and identifying as evangelical Christian and conservative (Wright et al., 2019), the main way we can combat fake news is by educating ourselves about what fake news is and isn’t, and doing our own fact checking when we are presented with information from any source, including hard news sources, government agencies, social media, friends, and family. Snopes is a great source for fact checking fake news but the best place to get accurate information related to COVID-19 is the CDC. There are also several available listings of fake news sources and websites for consumers to look out for. And while some social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now taking measures to remove fake news and misinformation from their platforms, it is ultimately up to us, as consumers, to make sure that the information we are feeding ourselves is accurate, factual, non-biased, reliable, and true.