The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of fact-checking from a primarily journalistic tool to a weapon in the fight against dangerous information-sharing practices and disinformation campaigns.
Fact-checking initially became a household term in 2009, when PolitiFact won the American Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for its fact-checking of Barack Obama’s campaign promises and government statements. But it really hit the big time in 2020 with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fact-checking has moved from the realm of vital journalistic tool to becoming a global imperative, indispensable in the campaign against the international infodemic of “fake news,” medical misinformation, and disinformation campaigns. This pandemic also continues to highlight the crucial role of journalists and independent, critical freedom of the press in democratic societies.
Experts and practitioners are warning that the pandemic has changed the nature of fact-checking, both in terms of the areas of concern and the stakes involved. As Philip Mai and Anatoliy Gruzd of the Ryerson University Social Media Lab have argued, the unchecked spread of misinformation about COVID-19 “will undermine the work of public health officials and put the public and medical workers at risk of contracting or spreading the infection.” This creates new responsibilities for organizations such as public health agencies that may be themselves contributing to an infodemic through bad communication practices or the inconsistent use of key terms such as “social distancing.”
The infodemic also has economic consequences. Scammers and con artists are using the pandemic to defraud individuals by preying on fears or offering miracle cures. Beyond the medical dangers, misinformation is being deployed for “financial scams, identity theft and other data breaches.” Rumors linking the spread of the virus or indeed its cure to specific brands or products can have a profound impact on sales and hence on sections of the economy.
In some countries, the spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated existing disinformation campaigns by state actors with geopolitical motives. Tamar Kintsurashvili, founder of Georgia’s Myth Detector Lab, warns that in addition to “clickbait” fake news that is circulating everywhere, Russia is exploiting the current crisis to undermine institutions in her country. This has involved spreading rumors about local public health labs leaking dangerous viruses and encouraging an anti-liberal agenda by creating a flood of stories linking COVID-19 to migration and the supposedly “perverted” lifestyle of outsiders.
As a result, a wide variety of new fact-checking apps and initiatives have been rapidly developed to cope with this dynamic and dangerous information environment. Veteran fact-checking operations such as Snopes have created special categories for exposing COVID-19 related dis- and misinformation. Investigative organizations such as Bellingcat have developed new tools for identifying malinformation campaigns. Public health organizations have also turned their attention to the wave of misinformation with the World Health Organization offering amythbuster page dedicated to rebutting the fake medical information and rumors that are spreading internationally. Funding agencies and journalism foundations have created new initiatives tofund fact-checking operations around the world in order to generate a counterweight to the COVID-19 infodemic.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated many other facets of the problem of misinformation. Conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease have spread, resulting in xenophobic and racist attacks on specific groups and nationalities. There are the competing unfounded claims that the virus is a bio-engineered weapon created in a laboratory for nefarious purposes. Likewise, rumors are circulating that specific groups and minorities are vectors for the spread of the coronavirus due to poor hygiene or dangerous cultural practices.
The growing spread of pandemic-linked misinformation has led tech developers to tackle already existing issues with the viral circulation of rumors on their platforms. New reporting mechanisms have been created on some applications so that misleading medical information can be removed more quickly. WhatsApp, for example, has implemented controls on how information is forwarded on its system. Previously, users could forward content that had been sent to them to a large number of groups, sparking an exponential viral circulation. But this also rapidly removed information from its original context and source. While the company had already limited forwarding information to only five chats in 2019, that has now been reduced to one. Google has also become active in countering mis- and disinformation on the pandemic as it appears in searches conducted on its platform.
The problem of viral social media content is also a problem of how mis- and disinformation is tied to emotional responses to information. The pandemic has only increased the avenues for exploiting heightened fear and anxiety. Not only do people need to learn how to engage with news about the pandemic rationally and analytically, they should also examine their own emotional responses. Some experts warn of individuals acting asinfohazard or vectors for an infodemic due to emotional manipulation. News that sparks a particularly strong feeling, inspires you to buy things or to hate and fear specific groups is more likely to be used to target individuals in a risk category for manipulation.
Certain countries have implemented new laws and regulations banning the spread of mis- and disinformation relating to COVID-19, but the legal response to the infodemic also poses risks. Measures to criminalize the spread of information relating to the pandemic have the potential to limit civil liberties and to allow for these powers to be expanded beyond the actual scope of medical necessity. In China, for example, the state is cracking down on journalists under the guise of preventing the spread of malicious and dangerous information. The International Press Institute has arolling counter cataloging media freedom violations in connection with the pandemic. Journalists are at risk as the fight against misinformation becomes a pretext for the suppression of news that reveals poor responses to the pandemic or is otherwise embarrassing to state interests.
A global health crisis that is heightening people’s fears for themselves, their families and their communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has enveloped the world with alarming speed and brought with it a potent mix of breaking news, confusion, and initial mismanagement in many countries. The need for accurate, effective and actionable information is thus a vital and inescapable component in the struggle against this global threat.