Curfew Diaries: Fake news virus

By Jamie Etheridge

Since we started seeing the first coronavirus cases in late February, a parallel phenomenon of fake news has been thriving alongside. As the government battled to organize a response and communicate the necessary news and information to the public, fake news rose in tandem, spreading fear and panic faster than the virus itself. Fake news may seem harmless, but in some instances it can be fatal. For example, in India, people have been beaten and killed as a result of fake news spread via messaging apps.

At the newspaper, we see dozens of fake news stories, fake announcements and other fake information on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s a video sent via WhatsApp that is days, weeks or months old. Sometimes it’s based on a rumor or a government announcement that hasn’t happened yet (and may not happen or may change in content or timing), and sometimes it’s simply people sharing voice notes from a ‘doctor within the ministry of health’ but never named, or a friend, cousin or classmate (also never named) who saw this with their own eyes and now this person is sharing it.

Yesterday, several people sent the newspaper notices they had received via WhatsApp supposedly from the government. The notice claimed to be from the ministry of health and offered guidance on what to do if you suspect that you have the coronavirus. It then exhorted people to republish this notice and said that if you “did not publish it, I know that you are a partner in killing your own people…greetings from the Ministry of Health.”

Aside from the terrible grammar, the message highlights the vast amounts of fake news pretending to be official notices that people are bombarded with daily. Social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp have helped in myriad ways to keep us all connected. They provide a wide range of social benefits and have made the isolation of ‘staying at home’ more bearable.

But they also serve as a conduit for the worst of human impulses. Rather like a virus themselves, fake news items spread among the population, and the more sensational, the more outrageous, the more racist or hate mongering, the more likely they are to spread. It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to pass these videos, texts and messages on to others – even if you can’t confirm their legitimacy.

Just like social distancing, there are measures we can take to stop fake news in its track. Instead of forwarding or sharing immediately when you receive something shocking or sensational, pause. Then ask yourself a few questions: Is this true? What is the source? What is the information saying or requesting that you do? Can I confirm this information with official channels or publications? Each person that pauses reduces the spread of the infection, and together we can conquer this harmful virus.

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