Why is fake news thriving during the coronavirus epidemic?

Do I have the virus? Hold your breath for ten seconds without coughing to ease your mind. Which medicine works? This epidemic can be defused by drinking bleach – or better yet, have a glass of fresh cow's urine. Fake news is thriving these days, but why is that? We asked Ivar Vermeulen, Senior University Lecturer in Communication Science and fake news researcher at VU.

03/23/2020 | 10:10 AM

The coronavirus crisis is an especially good breeding ground for fake news. Admit it, you too have been Googling whether that slightly sore throat or that annoying cough is a first sign that you might have caught the virus. Vermeulen says that kind of behaviour is completely normal. “People see the news and they're worried. As a result, they start actively looking for the information they need to protect themselves. Regular media only have a limited amount of information to report, while the hunger for news is much greater, and so people are also reading the things that are posted on social media. These posts therefore receive plenty of views and shares, especially if they are reporting something that has already been covered by mainstream media. There are so many people sharing messages from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment that are also featured on regular news websites – what is the added value in that?”

However, there is a lot to be gained for whoever comes up with all that fake news. That is what makes producing this kind of misinformation such an attractive venture. “It can be very rewarding to create these kinds of messages. The engagement level is very high for these messages, because a lot of people want to share that weird news story or new piece of information, and as a result, advertising revenue is also very high”, says Vermeulen. And there are also other interests that play a part. According to Vermeulen, there are plenty of parties who are looking to destabilise, or 'trolls' who enjoy creating confusion among people.

Still, you would think that we would know better by now, that we would stop trusting nebulous websites that launch all kinds of extreme claims out into the world. Vermeulen says it is not quite that simple, however. “People are at a disadvantage when it comes to information. They don't fully understand how viruses work or how they spread, which convince them of lies and half-truths. While many people have a certain level of scepticism, it is often directed at mainstream media or medical institutions. This leads them to believe in all kinds of conspiracy theories, that 'big pharma' was hindering certain developments or medicines for financial reasons, but also that the government, including the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, was holding back information on how contagious the virus is, for instance. But they can also believe that a GP or a Vietnamese doctor or medicine man discovered something that absolutely works, while the scientific world is hopelessly behind. And simply believing that the Dutch government will somehow find the worst possible way to handle this situation is also a popular train of thought.”

Vermeulen urges people who want to weed out fake news to take a close look at the source of the story. It's really rather simple. “Just remember this basic rule: Well-known, recognised news outlets such as newspapers, the NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation) and nu.nl do not publish fake news. If the source for a particular piece of news is dubious or even completely absent, you can be fairly certain that you're dealing with fake news. I can't remember any instance in the last few years where I read a piece of reliable or important news through social media that was not covered by regular media very soon afterwards at the very least. In these times of fake news, the traditional media are vital, as they are nearly always able to discern between fake news and factually correct news, serving as an important filter."

As for the question whether governments should do more to stop the spreading of misinformation and its destabilising effect on our society, Vermeulen says they should not. “That is not a job that the government should have to concern itself with too much. They could make funds available for fact-checking, or create an informative news campaign of some sort, but actually intervening when it comes to the content of the news should be done by independent organisations, such as the existing news corporations. Governments should not have an influence on the content of the news, beyond creating circumstances that facilitate reliable news coverage.”