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Coronavirus fake news: what’s going on and what to look out for

With many of us having to make serious adjustments to our everyday lives, it isn’t a stretch to say that Spring 2020 must be one of the strangest and most stressful in recent memory.

Supermarket shelves are being stripped clean and people are being encouraged to stay at home. As of March 23, in the UK, the government also announced some further restrictive measures to prevent people from leaving their homes to further curb the growing pandemic.    

It need not be said that there’s more than enough information about coronavirus for us to digest and act on – government-related recommendations included. To provide the UK as one example, there’s also plenty of reliable media sources, from the recent BBC-backed ‘Stay at home’ film released on the 22 March to the continuously updated resources provided by GOV.UK, the NHS, and others.

The messaging is very clear, but we also need to consider what else is happening beyond this.

A recent Pew Research Center publication suggests that 48% of adults in the US have had at least some exposure to made-up content about the coronavirus. Back in the UK, the NHS also recently also announced, on the 10 March, its initiative to tackle coronavirus fake news with the support of Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This isn’t discounting the £500,000 the UK’s Department for International Development is putting into the H2H, Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian, network, helping to tackle the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.

So we’re seeing a digital-based threat emerging alongside the global spread of COVID-19 itself that needs to be taken seriously, a new breed of what is perhaps more popularly known as ‘fake news’.

So what kinds of things should you look out for and be wary of?

Some coronavirus fake news can be relatively harmless. National Geographic recently highlighted two made-up social media stories of this type. One mentioned drunk elephants in China and another covered how swans in Venice, Italy have supposedly returned to the city’s canals. Both play to peoples’ love for animals and nature. Nonetheless, they are still fake.  

The problem isn’t really with stories like these. Instead, it lies with misinformation linked directly to how coronavirus spreads and how to treat it. GOV.UK describes these as, “False claims and conspiracy theories” that can, “pose a serious risk to health and can speed up the spread of the virus”, potentially distracting people from basic tasks like washing hands. 

In terms of particular things to look out for, GOV.UK breaks down different types of coronavirus misinformation into three categories: ‘Miracle cures’, ‘Undermining health officials’ and ‘Promoting violence.’ The first category highlights circulating stories that range from the overly optimistic to a genuine risk to public health. These include the belief that garlic can kill the virus to the dangerous suggestion that drinking chlorine dioxide, a substance harmful to humans, is somehow beneficial. Category two refers to other shared misinformation undermining health advice, such as the idea that regularly drinking water can actually prevent a coronavirus infection. Perhaps the most worrying category is the final one, referring to stories that try to blame the global pandemic on others. 

To confuse things further, according to The Conversation, a news publication for academics and researchers, some fake news stories mix elements of correct and false information together. 

Although we cannot provide advice on the subject of fake news, we can offer a few basic suggestions to help you scrutinize information so you can make better decisions.

Think about the tone of the message:

Be wary of stories that really try to push your buttons. These could be social media posts, WhatsApp messages or iMessages which claim an unusually high level of certainty in the information they’re providing compared to more familiar sources. Likewise, if a story appears emotionally-driven or intentionally trying to shock, this is also suspicious. Also, be wary of stories or messages that ask to be shared or forwarded to others. 

Check the source, then check again:

See if a story or message is trying to override your suspicions about authenticity. Throughout the pandemic “Taiwanese experts”, “Japanese doctors” and “Stanford University” have all been referred to. The Financial Times also identified other misleading messages attempting to sound credible, beginning with sentences like, “from a trusted friend connected to the UN”, or  “a brother-in-law who has a high position in the military” and so on. If the original source of a story or message seems vague to you, then you have a good reason not to trust it. 

Identify badly written English: 

Professional writers and communicators such as journalists or well-known organizations are unlikely to have a poor grasp of written English, whether the UK or US variants. Look out for obvious spelling or grammatical errors in messages or stories in addition to unusual style or formatting choices, such as overused exclamation marks or capital letters. 

Try a fact-checking website or search engine:

‘Full fact’ and ‘APFactCheck’ are two websites worth trying, according to The Conversation. You can use these to bring common fake news stories to your attention. If you come across a story online or through a message or email that seems suspicious, you can also try checking the headline and or main subject of the information on your preferred search engine. You may find that it’s identified by the mainstream media as one of the main circulating coronavirus hoaxes or fake news stories. In the UK, broadcasters such as ITV and the BBC have actually begun listing various commonplace coronavirus fake news stories in online articles. 

Be mindful of fake social media accounts:

Watch out for social media accounts that attempt to copy recognized broadcasters, media companies or organizations. On Twitter, the account @BBCNewsTonight was created to look similar to the very real @BBCNews account while running a made-up story about the actor Daniel Radcliffe contracting coronavirus. Social media platforms try to flag or delete accounts like these; it’s worth checking what their policies are. 

Always trust the best sources:

Your best options for information about the coronavirus are familiar, trusted government websites or globally recognized organizations such as WHO. In the UK, the NHS and NHS websites are also excellent sources of information, as the healthcare service continues to operate on the frontline of the outbreak. 

In light of recent events, if you happen to be relying on your devices, you can trust CCleaner for advice about keeping them operating at their best. Feel free to visit our homepage to learn more about our products. We’re here to help, so if you have any comments please tweet us @CCleaner.

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