Thursday | 09 April | 2020
By Anja van den Berg
Fear inevitably leads to panic, speculation and the spread of misinformation. The proliferation of fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic has been labelled a dangerous
“infodemic”. Fake news spreads faster and more easily today through the internet, social media and instant messaging.
Spreading fake news about Covid-19 or government’s efforts to stop its spread, is already a crime in terms of South Africa’s disaster regulations. If done with the deliberate intent to deceive, doing so could come with six months in jail.
If you’re battling to identify the validity of a Covid-19 update, measure the message against these criteria:
- Question the source
First and foremost, consider the source. Vague references to experts, doctors or specialists don’t clarify the authority of the source of the message. Moreover, many people write about science or information related to science. Still, not everyone who does has been trained to evaluate evidence properly, says Alice Hazelton, Programme Lead, Science and Society, World Economic Forum. In contrast with specialist science journalists, some writers may not know how to interpret jargon or report on statistics. Stay mindful that information from a medical source could have been reinterpreted, modified and even ignored altogether depending on the point the person writing wants to get across.
If the message you are reading contains a reference or link to the original research, the writer is usually trying to be transparent, Hazelton says. “[Including a link to the original research] is probably a good sign that the person writing it actually understands or has questioned the original work. Depending on the nature of the claim, you should check whether it’s also being reported in other media outlets.” If it truly is a breakthrough discovery, many other media platforms will be reporting the same kind of message. If it’s a lone WhatsApp message with a particular claim but no evidence, you should think twice.
- Determine the author’s authority on the subject matter
Ideally, reports of new scientific research should include comments from the study authors as well as an independent comment from someone in a related discipline who was not involved in the work. That’s not always the case though, Hazelton cautions. “Just because someone is a scientist, doesn’t mean that they’re qualified to comment on the work as they may not have had training or experience in that specific topic area.” Other questions to ask yourself are whether the quoted sources have a conflict of interest or stand to benefit in any way from what they’re saying. Are they affiliated with an organisation that could be swaying them to comment one way or another?
If you’re unsure of where to turn to or what to share, be sure to check out the World Health Organisation website as a trusted source of evidence-based information.
World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/how-to-avoid-covid-19-fake-news-coronavirus/
The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-coronavirus-fake-news-an-expert-guide-133843
Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.co.za/ott-fake-news-rules-against-coronavirus-for-whatsapp-2020-3
* All information was correct at the time of publication.