Have you heard the theory that the novel coronavirus is actually a man-made bioweapon? Or that 5G technology caused the virus outbreak? Social media users have widely shared such claims, which get thousands of views and likes before being debunked and dismissed by expert sources. There’s so much information out there, how do we know what to believe about coronavirus—or anything else, for that matter—any more?
We spoke to two fact-checkers to get a behind-the-scenes account of how they fight fake news and help restore confidence in the media.
Spreading inaccurate information deliberately isn’t a new trend. Research traces the first examples of “misinformation, disinformation and propaganda” to Roman times, when Antony met Cleopatra and Octavian started a smear campaign against Antony. This took the form of “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets”.
A lot has changed since Cleopatra’s day. Now fake news—the rumours, myths and bogus claims masquerading as verified news and facts—infiltrates our social media feeds and messenger chat groups. US President Donald Trump has popularised the term too. In fact, he even claimed he invented it.
The power of fake news shouldn’t be underestimated. It is increasingly seen as a threat to democracy, public order and free debate that can cause confusion and provoke unrest. According to the World Health Organisation, Covid-19 has led to an infodemic: a bombardment of information, both true and false, which makes it hard to know what to trust. An Ofcom report revealed that half of UK adults were exposed to false news about coronavirus in the first week of April, two-thirds of whom saw misinformation every day.
There are, however, experts working hard to make sure we get the truth.
A proliferation of fake news has triggered a rise in fact-checking outlets that scrutinise information and debunk false claims. The first fact-checking platforms emerged at the turn of the century; in April 2020 there were 237 fact-checking outlets in more than 60 countries.
In 2005, Channel 4 news launched the UK’s first regular fact-checking source in the form of a blog to cover parliamentary elections. Today, the British media landscape comprises fact-checking units within larger newsrooms, such as Channel 4’s FactCheck or BBC Reality Check, and independent organisations.
Most fact-checkers are trained journalists who use the same journalistic principles of verifying information and cross-checking data and sources to validate specific claims.
Alastair Brian, fact-checking editor of The Ferret, an independent investigative media cooperative, is among them. He started at The Ferret in Edinburgh three years ago. “When you work in the news industry there is a requirement to be fast-paced. You’re always trying to get a statement from politicians and you don’t necessarily have the time to check it,” said Brian. “This is where we step in. It was felt—especially during events such as the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit referendum—that it was really important to start fact-checking the information circulating.”
Not all fact-checkers have a journalistic background. Claire Milne, deputy editor of Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact-checking charity, has a background in research and consulting. She joined Full Fact in London four years ago. “The skills I acquired help my work as a fact-checker,” she said. “At Full Fact, we have a lot of skill sets on our team of 30. A good mix of people help with a wide variety of claims that we tackle on a day-to-day basis.”
For Milne and her team, every day starts with news monitoring. “We go through all the channels in search of the claims we want to fact-check. That includes social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, but also the tips our readers send us. We monitor daily newscasts, newspapers and online news sites in the UK as well,” said Milne.
The process is similar for Brian of The Ferret. “My day-to-day work is a mixture of reading the news, going through press emails from politicians and monitoring their social media platforms, checking what’s in today’s radio or TV news. I pay a lot of attention to the claims that sound dodgy and those that get a lot of social media attention,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted fact-checking coverage. “It is a unique situation in terms of news because there are no competing stories, everything is about the virus,” said Brian.
Full Fact’s schedule has become much busier. “We discuss what we’re going to cover during our morning meeting. We have quite a rigorous reviewing process to make sure that the information we are putting out there is as good and reliable as possible. Each article is reviewed from scratch by another member of the team, and fact-checked again. A third person then copy-edits it. Every article we publish goes through the hands of three members of the team,” said Milne.
In some ways, what Covid-19 has changed for fact-checkers is how they collaborate with each other, on an international level. When verifying claims about coronavirus, fact-checkers reach out to experts, check advice published by reliable sources such as the NHS or the WHO, and examine academic and scientific research on Covid-19 and similar viruses. They also team up with fact-checkers in other countries. In January, the International Fact-Checking Network launched the #CoronVirusFacts Alliance, which unites more than 100 fact-checkers globally in publishing, sharing and translating coronavirus facts.
From pranksters and politicians to conspiracy theorists, fraudsters and extremists, fake news comes from a variety of sources. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a “think and do” tank in London, has published two briefings on misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic. They conclude that the coronavirus pandemic was of “growing significance for the far-right communities” that have shared misinformation claiming that “the virus was a Chinese bioweapon” or “super-rich have a cure for it”. The report also found that fake news is being shared across social media channels but also through messenger platforms such as Whatsapp.
In some cases, people share fake news for fun, says Brian. “The most bizarre post I’ve fact-checked recently was an image that showed a screengrab of Sky News claiming that Russia had released lions onto the streets of Moscow to reinforce the lockdown,” he said. “It was an image taken from a 2016 movie shoot in South Africa to which someone attached the graphics to make it look like it was taken from a news site.”
Brian notes that false information has spread rapidly through Facebook groups, not public Facebook posts, and via Whatsapp. “Rather than being intentionally shared by public figures or politicians trying to mislead readers, corona-related fake news is being shared in the same ways that chain letters used to be sent. The news is more shared from person to person, rather than from a politician to the public,” he said.
False information can have serious repercussions. “One of the most viral posts, sharing symptoms and treatments for Covid-19, contained many inaccurate or misleading claims that could lead people to think they didn’t have coronavirus,” said Milne. The post stated that if someone has a runny nose, they just had a common cold. Although a runny nose is not one of the most common symptoms, it doesn’t rule it out, Full Fact concluded.
Another widely shared post included self-diagnosis tips. “It claimed that if you manage to hold your breath for ten seconds, you don’t have Covid-19. This is not scientifically grounded,” said Milne.
Brian has refuted a dozen of similarly problematic health-related claims, including alleged advice from Japanese doctors to drink water every 15 minutes and about home remedies such as vitamin C or garlic. “There was also a claim that heat kills coronavirus, be it from hot drinks or going to the sauna. A widely shared Whatsapp message even suggested that if you use a hairdryer up your nose the heat would kill the virus,” said Brian.
Across the globe, there are networks of fact-checkers busting myths that know no borders. “An image of what was claimed to be a military field hospital being set up in Scotland was shared, but it was actually from a hospital in Madrid. This sort of situation is where cross-collaboration is helpful,” said Brian.
We can all help by not sharing fake news. A 2019 study led by the Canadian psychologist Gordon Pennycook found that most people prone to sharing fake news are capable of distinguishing false claims from true ones, “but the social media context focuses their attention on factors other than truth and accuracy”.
The crucial step is to recognise misinformation in the first place—and then pause before sharing it. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.“If something elicits a very strong emotional response, if it makes you feel outraged, really angry or extremely happy, you should probably double-check it before sharing it,” said Milne.
Brian’s rule is to check the source. “Do you trust the source you’re sharing from? If it’s not 100% secure, do a bit of extra Googling to see who’s behind it,” he said. Two minutes of extra research might be enough to stop you from sharing something false and potentially harmful—and to make the lives of fact-checkers easier.
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