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The Infodemic of Fake News in the Era of CoV-19

In Italy Facebook and Twitter are not the primary social media apps of Italians generally speaking. More than ever WhatsApp and Instagram are the mobile apps of choice for social media messaging and these apps have been the cause of many fake news stories where local gossip is translated into a media story only later to be discovered as fake. There are even fake animal stories in abundance on social media on Instagram and Twitter and filters on Instagram that made claims to diagnose—and even cure—COVID-19.

Remember the ibuprofen scare that was said to originate from a friend of a doctor at the Medical University of Vienna in March? The claim, originally made as a voice recording in German and quickly translated to many other languages in message form, was that COVID-19 was either caused by or aggravated by patients taking ibuprofen. I saw about thirty tweets to this effect in March that many people aimlessly executed without reading any verifiable studies on this claim. Well, it turns out this was a hoax and wildly successful since even today people are still retweeting the fake news for which there is zero scientific basis.

While fake news is not endemic to Italy, it is having an increasing impact in other European nations as WhatsApp has become the primary vehicle for transmitting fraudulent news stories. Now for every rumour on social media, major and independent news is tasked with correcting the fake news reports to include telling readers how to deal with what is now called an “infodemic.”

Poland was also hit be a series of rumours that the national government would be locking people up in their homes for three weeks. All this is the result of the sharing of an audio file by an unidentified source who heard this plan from a “journalist friend.” In France, a false letter allegedly from the Ministry of National Education was circulated recently on Twitter which contended that summer holidays would be pushed back to 31 July for all schools and in a WhatsApp hoax, another anonymous person claiming to have links to the Institut Pasteur contended that COVID-19 is actually a chemical attack.

The WHO (World Heath Organisation) has become so concerned over the fake news surrounding COVID-19 that it has had to undertake various campaigns to counter directly many fake news reports. For instance, the claims that “snow and cold can kill the virus” as well as “taking a hot bath can ward off the risk of contagion” are both myths heavily circulated to which the WHO responded both with facts on its website and on social media. Tragically, fake news impacted the reaction in many African nations to the COVID-19 threat as the WHO and Ugandan government noted fake reports of reported cases. While this might seem anodyne, it creates a climate of distrust for the news—especially when urgent news requires direct action.

And where there’s fake news about risks and reports, you can bet money on the fact that there will be those interested in selling their secret cures. Hence the myriad fake news stories about the anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, as being safe for use against COVID-19. It’s not safe as one American man and his wife discovered earlier this week. The fake news making its way to Nigeria is the “cure” being offered in India which recommends the ingestion of cow dung and urine.

The problem with fake news about COVID-19 is that so much of what is real news surrounding this virus is often based on guesses such as the claim made last week by the head of Italy’s Civil Protection, Angelo Borrelli, that for every positive case in the country are ten more cases which are not registered. There is no science behind this claim—it’s a guess. Still, it’s a projection given by a professional in the field.

While Italy and other nations struggle against in the theatre of politics and the fake news that is spun, we must resist to share fake news from our keyboards. Of the people spreading the fake news about ibuprofen two weeks ago, at least half of the people on my feed who shared this item had a Masters or PhD degree. It has become somewhat of a cachet within social media to appear to know more about COVID-19 than others as recent days in lockdown has shown as people have debated the need for masks and social distancing as half baked conspiracies about a tie-in between 5G and COVID-19 has made the rounds last month.

Meanwhile, with Italy and Spain slowly opening up their economies as some businesses have begun to get back to work, phase two is quickly resembling phase one, just with face masks everywhere. Italians feel like they have been sold fake news by their own government which at the end of April announced a soft reopening which is now visibly not offering much of a change for most businesses. Indeed, it would seem that Italy’s own government and media have spun a subset of fake news as Italians were told that “life would slowly get back to normal” but over the past ten days everyone quickly learned that this new phase encompassed no real changes. Well, that is unless you are one of the wealthy now allowed to attend to second homes while everyone is free to visit immediate family members—with masks donned. The government had also told everyone that they could visit those with whom they had “a stable bond of affection” from which Italians understood this to include friends. Sadly, two days before the launching of phase two, Italians learned this was not the case.

The larger disaster of the fake news of phase two is hitting businesses quite hard now that almost two weeks of this experiment has passed. Italians have discovered that the phase two after lockdown entirely resembles phase despite media reports to the contrary. The only new freedoms allowed now allowed are visits to immediate family members and exercise yet anyone taking a small child to a park will have a difficult time of it since jungle gyms and all playgrounds for children are still off-limits. All non-essential businesses and cultural centers such as hair dressers, shops, gyms and museums while outdoor markets are open and struggling to stay afloat.

For restaurants in Italy during phase two only take-out orders are allowed which is has been Italian businesses sharply. Where some restaurants in the US are relying on restaurant POS (point of sale) systems that allow them to survive through fulfilling take-out orders, most Italian restaurants are not equipped with these systems. These and other online systems allow some restaurants to turn around orders in a short period of time during the even shorter-than-usual operating day under phase two. As a result, Italian restaurants still suffer from slow sales despite media representation which is trying to spin take-out service as a booming. Even cafes have reported slow business since last week as take-out ice cream orders are lagging as the Spring days turn into Summer. However, restaurant owners have complained about the financial hit they have taken in phase two which has pushed the government to speed up the reopening of cafés and restaurants with full service being launched next Monday given that the numbers of infected are falling daily as Italy’s R0 has fallen to below 1. Italians are hopeful that the numbers continue to fall.

Meanwhile, fake news sites are happy to exploit the confusion that weekly national, regional and municipal decrees create as the government has recently had to demystify fake news on its website. For instance, the national government has had to explicitly detail that applying vaseline does not stop the virus from entering the nose nor does drinking alcohol kill the virus, among many other false news accounts circulating the internet.

We must resist this urge to hit the share button before either reading reams of information on these topics or listening to one of the many experts whose voices can easily be heard in the media. The fallout from sharing anti-science junk can potentially be deadly, if not quite harmful, for others.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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