Why are people drawn to fake news?

fake news coronavirus

Lockdown measures taken by certain countries in Europe such as Italy and Spain mean that millions of people are confined to their homes. Except for essential movements such as food shopping or visiting a pharmacy, the overwhelming majority under isolation orders, are required to adapt their daily routines to comply with these measures.

Social media can be an appealing way to stay connected to friends, family and colleagues - but it can also be a source of misinformation and bad advice. 

Experts warn that an over reliance on social media to keep informed about the coronavirus pandemic can be dangerous - both in terms of the spread of misinformation and for people’s mental well-being.

Jeff Hancock, Professor of Communication at Stanford University warns that social networks, while they can be an excellent tool to communicate with our loved ones during isolation, are also swamped with fake news and unsubstantiated claims about a plethora of topics.

Despite these concerns, Hancock does stress that social media is an important way of keeping socially connected: "This connection with our loved ones is incredibly important to our psychological health in these times of social alienation." 

It is the overload and oversharing of questionable information surrounding specific topics that can increase levels of anxiety - especially negative ‘news’. He explains that people tend to pay more attention to bad news in times of crisis.

Hancock says: "Compared to real news, fake news tends to include information that is more surprising, upsetting or aimed at provoking anger or anxiety.”

He discusses how people are interacting on social media about coronavirus: "The way we communicate on the internet largely reflects our fears and concerns about the virus, and this should not surprise us. As people struggle to learn more about it, cope with disruptions in their normal lives and try to understand how they should deal with them, they are using social networks to achieve these goals and express their fear and uncertainty." 

Though expressing feelings and opinions online can offer a level of catharsis during these troubling times - it brings with it the spread of fake news - which is likely to further increase already existing anxieties and levels of uncertainty. 

So what leads people to believe misleading or even dangerous information?

"When people are afraid, they look for information to reduce uncertainty. This can cause people to believe information that may be wrong or misleading because it helps them feel better or allows them to blame others for what is happening," explains Hancock. 

This is often why conspiracy theories become so prominent and accepted. 

Fake news is no new topic, sensationalism has always sold well - so it’s important to not only consider what you’re reading on social media - but also take care when reading and sharing news from the tabloid press.

Motivations behind sharing fake news?

Referring to sensationalist reporting and social media influencers sharing fake news, Hancock suggests that the main motivation is money. 

He says: "Because media business models are based on the economics of attention, bad communicators create misinformation about the coronavirus so that people will pay attention to its content and ultimately make money from that attention.” 

Other motivations include politics and active intention to confuse, explains Hancock: “Fanatics try to blame political opponents for the crisis and others are simply out to disrupt and unsettle the public.”

Keep to reputable sources

False claims and conspiracy theories have spread rapidly on social media, touting ‘cures’ like drinking bleach or rubbing mustard and garlic into your skin. These pose a serious risk to health and can speed up the spread of the virus, by stopping people taking simple practical, preventative steps like washing their hands.

In order to ensure you are reading reputable information about COVID-19, it is important to only refer to official sources. 

In the UK for example, Public Health England is regularly updating its advice on coronavirus, including how people can help stop the spread of infection - a reputable officially recognised resource.

It is important to note that the information on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) remains confusing and constantly changing, even for experts working in disease prevention and control. 

It is better not to take anything for granted or as fact until they are confirmed by official bodies - such as the World Health Organisation.  

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