The Pandemic of Fake News

Welcome to fake news. The bane of our existence.

Our phones are inundated with screenshots, voice notes, forwards and articles claiming to be actual news. The floodgates of fake news are wide open and the unfortunate reality is that fake news reaches more people and spreads quicker than the truth.

A common response braided into a sentiment of what is considered to be a believable truth:

“I saw it on Facebook.”

Voice notes.
Articles claiming to be actual news.

Misinformation researchers generally have two hypotheses: 1) our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions 2) we are mentally lazy.

Passed on from the stirring pot of fear and confusion to Facebook. Screenshot. Click + Hold + Copy. And then it finds its way into WhatsApp groups. Paste.

Believing the unbelievable. Chaos. Panic. Disorder.

Welcome to fake news. The bane of our existence.

There is even a fake news generator.

During the past COVID-19-month we have seen it all.

A photo of Italy’s prime minister in tears with the caption, “We have lost control” or “Pray for Italy” has been shared from here to Timbuktu. But the face is not the face of Italy’s president, it is the face of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. And his tears have nothing to do with the coronavirus.

Then there was the suggestion to ingest chloroquine (which led one couple to ingest fish-tank cleaning products because fake news made them believe it could cure COVID-19).Or that the virus was developed by the Chinese government to gain world dominance. Even world leaders have spread fake news and social media giants, Twitter and Facebook, have deleted their posts related to spreading false information about the coronavirus.

And let’s not forget the voice notes. Oh the voice notes. Especially in South Africa. Drink this, do that. And something about someone who knows someone who works with someone high up with someone else in the government who said something about something happening tomorrow – and the moral of the voice note was basically: go buy toilet paper.

The voice notes circulating in South Africa during COVID-19 is a stark reminder of what made our phones ping during the 2017 Knysna Fires.

One woman screamed for a second or two about PetroSA’s gas-to-liquids refinery, “Mossgas is burning, Mossgas is burning people.”

It wasn’t burning.

Another voice note claimed that all the donations for Knysna fire victims were being hi-jacked. And someone said they saw people with petrol cans starting fires (even worse, a photo did the rounds that two local firefighters started a fire, yet the photo’s origin? Canada).

The fake news caused unnecessary chaos and panic and police urged the public to stop spreading false information to avoid legal proceedings.

The truth and the warning fell on deaf ears. With every disaster or political event there are always lies towering above the truth. Or rather, worming its way through the truth to cause panic and provoke reaction.

In a study called “The spread of true and false news online”, where researchers used a data set of rumour cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017, it was discovered that it took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1500 people.

And before that sinks in, chew on the fact another study suggests: the more we see it, the more we’re likely to spread it. 

In South Africa, anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution.

spread/sprɛd/verbgradually reach or cause to reach a wider area or more people.“the news spread from the city centre to the suburbs”Similar: disseminate, circulate, pass on, put about, communicate

Or an alternative synonym in the terminology of WhatsApp and the internet: FORWARD.

Yes. That screenshot someone just sent to you that you are now sending to someone else. That is a forward. And a forward is a spread. And a spread of fake news about the coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution.

Aunty. Oom. Pietie. Parents. Granny. Boet. Sarah. Whoever. STOP.

South Africa is asking you to stop. The world is asking you to stop. The person with anxiety is asking you to stop. The person who doesn’t have enough money for data to search for the truth is asking you to stop. The 70-year-old who is living alone and scared to go outside is asking you to stop. 

Stop with the screenshots. Stop with the forwards. Stop with taking a photo (i.e. downloading something that is not yours) and adding your own two cents to it. Stop copying and pasting. Stop forwarding information without questioning it first. Understand and differentiate between too good to be true and actual news. Share links from reputable media sources. Not headlines. A screenshot of a headline, which often has a click bait title to entice you to read the full article, is not a full stop to the story. It is not substantial enough to just share a headline.

According to News24, at least three fake news spreaders were charged and a man has been arrested for spreading false reports that there is no coronavirus outbreak in South Africa. A quick visit to the South African Government website will give an updated overview of the fake news that have made the rounds in South Africa already; from Rhamaposa supposedly saying that people should stay indoors because helicopters would spray chemicals on South Africa to fake government letters addressing restrictions and some bullshit about cosmic rays. 

There are a lot of reasons why people fall hook, line and sinker for fake news.

Misinformation researchers generally have two hypotheses: 1) our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions 2) we are mentally lazy.

A recent study by David Rand, a behavioural scientist at MIT who studies fake news on social media, finds that belief in fake news is associated with reduced analytical thinking, delusionality, dogmatism and religious fundamentalism, which in turn suggests that openness to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than by partisan bias. 

We are inundated by information and sensationalism – that screenshot that tickles your emotions or make you gasp – trumps fact checking and the evaluation of accuracy.

Have we lost the ability to think? Are we so impatient to fact check that just believe all to be true?

Aunty. Oom. Pietie. Parents. Granny. Boet. Sarah. Whoever. STOP.

Stop being lazy. Think. Use your beautiful brain. You are not a 10-year old with a device in your hand. You are (most likely) an adult. Act like one. Be responsible. 

Don’t believe everything you read. Moenie alles vir soetkoek opeet nie. Do not fall prey to misinformation. Let the forward and the screenshot stop with you.

A little thinking might will go a long way because we do not need a pandemic in the middle of an actual pandemic.