What to do to challenge fake news on social media.
"Fake News" always seemed to me to be something distinctly American, like spray cheese or high school doping scandals. Their independence and constitutionally entrenched distrust of authority struck me as the perfect breeding ground for what Kellyanne Conway memorably coined "alternative facts". Glasgow University, with its abundance of critically trained thinkers and myriad of student newspapers, seemed miles out of the reach of Russian troll farms. So I was surprised to find a post shared by a friend of mine about the Coronavirus, or, perhaps more accurately, not about the Coronavirus, since the post claimed that though "a lot of people are dying…almost every story coming from these hotspots is saying, ‘it’s not what you think it is’". Though the article never explains who exactly has been saying this, the post suggests, in short, that something other than Covid is killing us, and that someone doesn’t want us to know what. Aside from the odd premise, this surprised me, considering that she is an English student like myself, trained to read and analyse words.
Firstly, the post was written in numbers as well as English. Words like "Coronavirus" became "[email protected]¡rus", "Doctors and nurses" became "D0ct0rs and nurs3s" and "medical staff" became "[email protected] [email protected]". They claimed this was because they were "being gagged". It’s difficult to see how. The campaign group Avaaz discovered that over 40% of posts containing misinformation (and shown to contain misinformation by fact-checking organisations working with Facebook) stayed up on the site. Far from being "gagged", misinformation was being allowed to proliferate.
The original poster had also attached screenshots (nearly 200 of them) of tweets where people described deaths being misattributed. The issue with using tweets as evidence is that there’s little accountability; anyone can make as many twitter accounts as they have burner emails. This wouldn’t have been too bad if they were merely first-hand accounts to catch our interest for the articles below, but the articles below were a striking example of how odd this post truth era can be. One of the links led to a video suggesting that the Olympics opening ceremony predicted the Coronavirus, thus proving that it was planned and a hoax. And no, I had not accidently stumbled upon an Onion article.
The poster’s first words were "[d]isclaimer: I’m not posting this for debate". Suggesting that those working in our hospitals might be involved in something insidious is always going to incite questions, but the text was carefully designed to make anyone who disagreed look argumentative. "I can’t force you to accept anything, but it’s not an invitation to argue with people's experiences", the post says. My father, who has worked as a field medic in the Gulf, and later in Haiti after the earthquake, had called me a few days before to talk about his experiences. He told me that the Coronavirus was the worst thing he had ever seen. So many people were dying, and there was so little he could do to help them. This is a man who has worked in war and in the aftermath of a natural disaster and there he was, through a screen where I couldn’t reach him, crying. The hospital where he works did and does have the highest mortality rate in the country.
This was the point when I decided to message the young woman who had shared the post. After reacting angrily at first, she admitted that she hadn’t read the links before sharing. The post was never deleted, so it reached an unknown number of people through her timeline.
How to spot Fake News…
… And what should you do if you spot it.