Easy to be taken in by fake news


The Citizen (KZN) - - Front Page - Ma­rina Jou­bert

Au­thor­i­ties should fight back via so­cial and main­stream me­dia.

False al­le­ga­tions and ru­mours about the coro­n­avirus out­break have been run­ning riot on so­cial me­dia and in some main­stream me­dia. Mis­in­for­ma­tion is ram­pant and con­spir­acy the­o­ries have added to the con­fu­sion.

Ex­am­ples in­clude re­ports that the virus can kill a per­son in sec­onds and there has even been a photo show­ing dozens of coro­n­avirus vic­tims ly­ing dead in the streets of Wuhan in China.

All of th­ese claims have been shown to be false.

This sen­sa­tion­al­ist and alarm­ing con­tent cre­ates what have be­come known as “dig­i­tal pan­demics” or “(mis)in­fo­demics”. Their ef­fect is to am­plify pub­lic anx­i­ety.

This can de­rail of­fi­cial ef­forts to pro­vide cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic.

Sev­eral fac­tors fuel the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion dur­ing out­breaks of in­fec­tious dis­eases. Th­ese in­clude fear and the speed of so­cial me­dia.

As pre­vi­ous in­ci­dents like this have shown, it’s pos­si­ble to counter the fool­ish­ness. But this re­quires sci­en­tists and pub­lic health of­fi­cials to step up and to proac­tively use their plat­forms to con­vey ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion spreads fast when peo­ple are afraid. Peo­ple rely on men­tal short­cuts when fac­ing com­plex in­for­ma­tion and make in­stant de­ci­sions that are, un­for­tu­nately, of­ten wrong.

Sci­en­tists need time to study a new dis­ease and test po­ten­tial treat­ments, but peo­ple may be des­per­ate and im­pa­tient. As a re­sult, it’s com­mon for old home reme­dies and un­proven treat­ments to be re­vived.

In­grained neg­a­tiv­ity bias means that peo­ple love to share bad news.

A 2018 study con­firms that false news trav­els farther, faster and more widely than the truth.

Ed­i­tors and jour­nal­ists no longer con­trol the flow of news and opinion. So­cial me­dia chan­nels pro­vide near-per­fect vec­tors for mis­in­for­ma­tion to pro­lif­er­ate. Some so­cial me­dia tech gi­ants claim that they are do­ing what they can to stop the spread of halftruths and out­right false­hoods about the coro­n­avirus.

For their part, most sci­en­tists are keen to com­bat mis­in­for­ma­tion.

Rather than lament­ing the dan­gers of so­cial me­dia, sci­en­tists and pub­lic health of­fi­cials should learn how to use it more ef­fec­tively for fre­quent and re­li­able up­dates.

The mass me­dia can also play a key role. Ma­jor me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions are ris­ing to the cur­rent coro­n­avirus chal­lenge by pro­vid­ing ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion.

Ma­rina Jou­bert is a sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­searcher, Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity

Re­pub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion

Pic­ture: AFP

KNOWL­EDGE IS SAFETY. Stu­dents watch an in­struc­tional video on the coro­n­avirus in­fec­tion at a school in Kuwait City yes­ter­day. More than 28 000 peo­ple have now been in­fected across China.

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