Photo: There has been ongoing disinformation at every stage of the pandemic. Credit: Kaboompics/Freepik.
By Isabel Reviejo
There was the myth that the vaccines developed to combat COVID-19 modify DNA, the false connection between the disease and 5G, the erroneous reports that billionaire George Soros owned a laboratory in Wuhan that ” manufactured” the virus… The pandemic's evolution has been accompanied by widespread disinformation which has further contributed to public confusion and complications in responding to the virus, which has also had repercussions for businesses.
As far back as February 2020, when the pandemic's impact was still very much concentrated in China and had not yet spread to Europe and other regions of the world, the WHO started using the term “infodemic” to refer to the “excessive amount of information” circulating about the virus, making it difficult for people to distinguish between what was true and what was not.
Initially, this fake news content revolved around COVID-19's origin, but then false preventive remedies took center stage, as did, later on, issues related to public management and vaccines. This propagation has led to disastrous consequences, such as hundreds of deaths and hospitalizations that have been linked to alcohol or methanol ingestion with the aim of supposedly eliminating the disease.
While the problem of disinformation is an evil that has been fought for years in the digital environment, the fact that the pandemic puts health and science issues at the forefront, with which the public is not as familiar, has made it more difficult to counter fake news.
According to a report by Ramón Salaverría, professor at the University of Navarra, in collaboration with the Multidisciplinary Working Group (GTM), which has advised the Government in dealing with the pandemic, several factors have converged to cause this problem. Some of them are rooted within the sector itself, such as the “acceleration of scientific publication processes”, which has led to a multitude of articles on the subject being published in just a few months, but with weakened evaluation protocols.
According to this research, another factor has been the lack of a culture of scientific dissemination. Therefore, the absence of specialized points of reference for the general public has been replaced by other figures who have less specific knowledge or even celebrities with no training in the subject.
Photo: Anti-vaccine propaganda has lost steam as vaccination has advanced. Credit: CDC/Unsplash.
The “snowball” vaccination effect
Since the end of 2020, news of the pandemic has been dominated by vaccines. While vaccines have repeatedly been one of the targets for conspiracies, the launch of immunization plans in countries has contributed to a growing number of people considering them reliable.
According to a study by Imperial College London conducted between November and February in 15 countries (including Spain), confidence in doses has increased in most of the nations studied, and, on average, 58% of people surveyed were willing to receive it.
“It is a snowball effect. As soon as people saw that vaccination was occurring normally and that cases of serious side effects were not widespread, they began to question the misinformation and there started to be greater awareness,” says Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, coordinator of Public Policy and Institutional Development at Maldita.es, one of the main verification media outlets in Spain.
Social media put the brakes on
The high virality of fake posts on social networks, which spread faster than accurate ones, has sparked social demand for the platforms themselves to act by regulating their content and preventing the dissemination of myths. As a result, they have responded by implementing policies that include removing content that contributes to disinformation.
An example of this was last year's removal of Facebook posts by then U.S. President, Donald Trump, in which he claimed that the virus is “far less lethal” than the flu virus and that children are “almost immune” to it.
Among the measures implemented by the networks are to directly ban certain content, to flag posts that may contain “potentially misleading” information or to block certain users and channels. In this regard, Twitter has reported that it has already permanently suspended 2,400 accounts, as of March 1.
Despite this, Hernández-Echevarría points out that “the vast majority of disinformation is generated in private messaging networks before making the leap to public networks”. For this reason, he emphasizes that efforts to combat this problem must focus on these channels, and also appeals to the fact that “beyond the platforms themselves taking measures, we must all, individually, be less gullible, more cautious, and we must get used to checking at least a bare minimum” before sharing content.
Photo: Institutions must be present on all platforms where disinformation can be found. Credit: Victoria Heath/Unsplash.
Transparency and adaptation, the keys to fighting against disinformation
Beyond the impact it can have on people's health, coronavirus fake news has even had a direct impact on businesses. “In late February 2020, a hoax went viral that the owners of a store belonging to a Chinese national were from Wuhan and that they were being quarantined. It was a lie. Naturally, this hurt both the family and the store. The rumor reached such an extreme level that the author of the message, in a Whatsapp chain, came out to apologize”, exemplifies Joaquín Ortega, Director of Content for Newtral.es.
Therefore, the big question for both corporations and public and private institutions is: how can we ensure that content reaching citizens is accurate and prevent disinformation from gaining ground?
“The key, above all, is for companies to be very honest in what they communicate, both to the outside world -customers, stakeholders and society as a whole- and to their employees. We have moved from a communication concept in which everything was positive and negative things could not be said to one in which the priority is to tell it like it is,” argues Carlos Corominas, Opinno's Content Director.
This aspect is one that the Maldita.es expert agrees with, pointing out that it is essential to “be transparent and diligent in sharing quality information”: ” As an institution, if you leave a vacuum, you are taking a huge risk. You have to make information available before the disinformation arrives”.
Emphasis is also placed on the “where”. Accurate information, according to Hernández-Echevarría, “has to be present in all the places where disinformation can be found; where the conspiracies exist, they have to be disproved”. This is an additional difficulty, given that misleading content can be found “on all networks and in all formats”, which means that institutions must have the capacity to adapt to all of them, adjusting their message as necessary.
Another important aspect, stresses Corominas, is that communication should be “based on facts” and reflect real company involvement, so as not to fall into a simple act of greenwashing – the name given to marketing campaigns aimed at positioning a brand or its products as “green”, without them actually being sustainable -. How to do so will depend, to a large extent, on the desired objective.
“For more relaxed formats, you could use an interview-style podcast, something that many companies are doing, with branded content; for more emotional formats, you could use videos or even establish direct channels of communication with employees and customers through newsletters,” he adds.
Regardless of the chosen approach, transmission of accurate information has become one of the basic elements for institutions and companies in facing the pandemic crisis, at a time when, more than ever, society is demanding clarity.