The challenge of covering COVID-19 lies not only in the intrinsic complexity of the pandemic and the evolving nature of the science around the virus. It also comes from the parallel effort journalists have to make to combat widespread disinformation. But, what is the driving force behind the wave of COVID-19 fake news?
This was one of the questions discussed during the panel “Disinformation & evolving data,” part of the Jan. 27 webinar Variants, Vaccines and Medications: What Journalists Need to Know to Improve COVID-19 Coverage.
The event was organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, in partnership with UNESCO, funded by the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists. Video of the webinar can be found on YouTube in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
Journalist Davey Alba, one of the panelists and a New York Times reporter who specializes in online disinformation, said that her experience on this beat has taught her that disinformation tends to follow the news cycle, impacting whatever is the hot topic of the day.
“With COVID-19 being relevant for billions of people around the world – it’s a global pandemic – this is something that misinformers have latched onto,” Alba said, adding that some people saw the pandemic as an opportunity to make a name for themselves by spreading incorrect information.
Government and social media as sources of disinformation
In certain cases, the drivers of disinformation are those who should be responsible for providing trustworthy information to the public.
Jane Qiu, one of the panelists and an independent science journalist who covers the origins of COVID-19, mentioned instances where the governments of China and the United States have been involved in disinformation campaigns.
“China’s foreign ministry, for instance, insinuated that the virus was leaked from a military lab near Maryland. And Tom Cotton, a U.S. senator, said that the virus was engineered by the Wuhan lab and then leaked,” Qiu said. “It’s like watching two kids in a shouting match, trying to outcompete the other to come up with the most outlandish claims.”
These types of politically motivated falsehoods, Alba noted, tend to spill over to the public through mainstream social media platforms, where algorithms prioritize pieces of information that grab people’s attention and keep them following the rabbit hole all the way down to full-blown conspiracy theories.
“What we’ve seen in the past couple of years, for as long as this pandemic has been going on, is the internet is really an accelerant of these falsehoods,” Alba said.
One of the questions raised by journalist Deborah Blum, director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program and moderator of the panel, was whether mainstream social media companies should play a bigger role in stopping misinformation.
“One of the big problems now is that journalists are also relying on these platforms to deliver the news. So, there’s some sort of ethical tension there,” Blum noted.
Alba said that platforms know this problem exists, and are aware of the stakes.
“It’s difficult because they always talk about having a balanced free speech, and making sure that everyone who wants to say something has the airtime,” she said. “At the same time, I do think that they have shown themselves to be quite late. And sort of not aggressive enough in a lot of cases.”
Journalist Mandi Smallhorne, a panelist and president of the South African Science Journalists Association and vice-president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), expressed concern with how much of the delivery of news, both on social media platforms and in media houses, is affected by profit motives nowadays.
“I don’t know how to do it, but I think that we have to have some mechanism that counters that because clickbait is driving everything at the moment.”
Who is vulnerable to fake news?
It’s difficult to establish an archetype of a person who is particularly vulnerable to misinformation, according to Alba. As these theories are so pervasive online, they will very likely end up in the social media feed of someone we know.
“I think that it’s incumbent on all of us to think of it as a community project to raise all of our literacy levels, and to make sure that everyone that we are in contact with knows how to suss out good sources for themselves,” she said.
It is also important to investigate why some people tend to believe in disinformation. According to Smallhorne, in the context of many African countries, there is a justifiable history of distrust in Western science. African populations have been used for drug trials without the necessary safeguards.
“The lesson that I certainly have learned as a journalist in this period is not to look at these people and go: ‘you are a bunch of idiots because you believe this.’ But to look at them and say: ‘what makes you believe this?’” Smallhorne said.
Other pertinent questions to be asked, according to her, are: What is in your background that makes you feel less trusting of medical science? Are you afraid of having power taken away from you? Why are you so afraid that the government might have played a part in creating this?
“With COVID, it’s become very clear to me that we have got to start thinking about different ways of communicating. We have to start storytelling not just the facts, but also the feelings, the reasons for people’s fears,” Smallhorne said.
When the media misinforms
Traditional media can also be a vector of COVID-19 misinformation, as pointed out by panelist Federico Kukso, an independent science journalist and board member of WFSJ. In Argentina, for example, there was a big campaign against confinements at the beginning of the pandemic which was mostly led by the country’s biggest newspapers, whose agenda collided with the government, he said.
“For me, it’s important that the news organizations hire specialized journalists, who have enough experience to deal with the pandemic. The words we use are important,” Kukso said.
One of the issues that comes from the absence of science journalists in many newsrooms is that sometimes a political journalist, for example, will interview a scientist with expertise in one field to comment on a topic outside of that specific field, a phenomenon known as epistemic trespassing. There have been instances where researchers have used their authority as scientists to promote questionable theories.
“I actually try to be more skeptical regarding scientists who want to be in the media, and have these big declarations. Even if they are Nobel laureates, we don’t have to rely on that. We have to rely on the evidence, not on the voice of the scientists,” Kukso noted.
Well-intentioned, but underprepared journalists may also fall prey to the hype of potential treatments or even the vaccine. Kukso mentioned that, in Latin America, when the number of breakthrough infections recently rose, people started saying that vaccines didn’t work because the news media had been describing the vaccine like an infallible shield that protects people from the virus.
“My recommendation for journalists is to try to be more moderate, especially taking into account that behind press releases are big companies,” Kukso said. “We all want to listen or to read news that says that some drug will end this pandemic forever. But, I think this ends up eroding the confidence of the people in science.”
An excess of optimism and lack of a rigorous data interpretation has also affected the coverage of the Omicron variant. Smallhorne mentioned that Omicron hit South Africa after the Delta wave had exposed a large portion of the population to COVID-19, so when Omicron appeared in the country, it didn’t hit as hard as it might have in other locations.
“So, there was this story, this narrative that Omicron was mild,” she said. “And, unfortunately, that has spread far and wide and has contributed to poor response, I think even poor policy, around attacking Omicron.”
There are measures journalists can take to avoid spreading misinformation. Perhaps the first one is to identify potential biases in sources, especially when reporting about intensely political topics like COVID-19.
“We all have our own biases as well. We are all humans and have opinions. I think the first thing is really to acknowledge, and to be honest about our own potential bias,” Qiu said.
Journalists should also beware of the false balance problem –when reporters present two opposing points of view as if they were equal, when in fact evidence supports only one of those sides.
“The important thing to avoid the false balance is that we have to convey very clearly where the scientific consensus lies, and where the weight of different lines of evidence lies,” Qiu said. “And this has to be presented in a way that [shows] it’s an ongoing process. It’s not fixed conclusions, because consensus can be wrong and things may change with new evidence.”
One of the major goals for journalists covering science and the pandemic, according to the panelists, is to properly convey the uncertainties of science.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve seen as problematic during this period, is that we kept on having reporting that said – this is what’s happening – instead of conveying carefully that science is an evolving process, especially in something like a pandemic,” Smallhorne said.