By Eve Willis
You know what I am talking about. Mothers on a mission to educate the masses. Dads sharing their friend of a friend’s sister’s university mate’s germ-busting tips as if gospel.
Everyone has received a fake news story, or hoax, forwarded to them on WhatsApp by their nearest and dearest. With the coronavirus crisis enveloping the world, toppling a new country week by week, and death rates only rising, panic is ensuing. But it seems people, and to be specific, your family members usually aged over 40, have taken to their smartphones and enlisted WhatsApp to cure corona. They’re doing so by disseminating the wisdom of chain mail, or a minefield of misinformation, to the multitudes.
The drill is as follows: this is sent from my *insert any vaguely managerial, loosely government related position*, such as “my friend high up in Scotland Yard”, “my cousin who works in the NHS” or “my mum’s yoga friend who is a doctor”. Then followed by a “please read”, some emojis and a lengthy list of advice and tips which frankly should remain in medieval medicine. Even more sinister are the so-called “breaking news stories”, which range from “drink hot water every 20 minutes to stop the virus reaching your stomach”, to the “lie in the sun, as sunlight kills the virus” to the complete barmy “shut your windows tonight, as they are spraying disinfectant”.
A pandemic is a once in a generation occurrence, and we are living through uncharted waters right now, given that there was no technological possibility for WhatsApp misinformation to occur during the 1919 Spanish influenza. The torrent of messages, which are only compounding your lockdown-induced anxiety and uncertainty, usually come from the people you love and trust the most. Whether they are telling you how to avoid Covid-19 or to stop using House Party, it’s hard to know why your relatives, who you consider capable of navigating the internet, are incessantly sending fake news?
It could be that our parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, as much as we love them, are not as tech savvy as we would hope and remain a little more vulnerable to the spread of fake news – especially when it is received from individuals whom they trust. Spoofs such as the giant lasagne being made in Wembley stadium by the UK government – a voice note spread via WhatsApp mimicking the circulation of ridiculous content – is emblematic of a generational friction arising with how different age groups perceive and trust information.
Fear and helplessness also play a large part. The lack of certainty and clarity about the situation is evident within the government and the media, and people are therefore turning away from sources of information they deem untrustworthy. A week into lockdown and almost two weeks since the government began daily broadcasts on the 16th of March, people continue to disregard official updates from news outlets such as the BBC, the government and the WHO.
But in the era of fake news – Trump and his campaign rhetoric as well as Brexit and the infamous NHS bus (Where is that 350 million a week now?) come to mind – can you really blame people for their mistrust of official information? Studies undertaken in 2019 found that only 17% of Americans and 19% of Brits trusted their government.
Public trust in the government and figures of authority in general has reached historic lows, which is reflected in the willingness of your family members to circulate untrue and potentially damaging information. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the public’s scepticism towards the media and official governmental institutions, which only grows when lives are at risk and people are scared.
The UK government has introduced a special taskforce to combat the proliferation of fake news. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has stated that action is essential “to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours, which could cost lives”. They are working with social media platforms to remove phishing scams, bogus medical advice and fake news stories. They are even calling for the act of knowingly sharing false information about Covid-19 as a criminal offence.
If you are struggling to convince your family to stop sending you questionable messages, send them these questions:
- Where did this come from? Who sent it?
- Why am I seeing it?
- Is this content true? How can I know?
- Is this content removed from its original context?
- What message am I sending if I engage with this content?
But as always get your information from reliable sources: