The most annoying messages I have received via WhatsApp during this coronavirus pandemic, are messages from 'well-established' members of the Church circulating, what I can only conclude to be, fake news. I'm bewildered how news stories that have no credence or authenticity can be so naively shared without thought as to whether 'this text I am about to send to five other people may not be correct'. It reflects the fact that those sharing these dubious messages have not taken even a few moments to do their basic research. Just because you read it online does not make it true!
As a result, we begin to see the snowball effect that social media has during this vulnerable coronavirus period: it spreads very quickly to a wide population all trying to make sense of what is happening globally. It seems that suddenly, we have many COVID-19 experts sharing video messages ranging from the origins of the virus, all the way through to suggestions for its ultimate cure.
Downing Street’s anti-fake news unit is dealing with up to 10 cases of misinformation about coronavirus a day as it emerged some articles are getting more views than all of those posted by the NHS put together. The Cabinet Office is now working with social media firms to remove fake news and harmful content. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said action was needed "to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours, which could cost lives."
The government is also re-launching a campaign called "Don't Feed the Beast", urging the public to think carefully about what they share online. It comes as the former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee called for knowingly sharing misinformation about Covid-19 to be made an offence. It is a sad truth that any health crisis will spawn its own pandemic of misinformation.
So, within the past six weeks I have received texts with the following stories:
- "there is a link between 5G technology and covid-19"
- A video in Spanish that has more than seven million views recommending "gargling salt water to prevent Covid-19 infection"
- "the US created the virus in a secret laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, as part of a biological warfare programme"
- "people with dark skin are immune to COVID-19 due to melanin production"
We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate. As the author of one paper put it: "When thoughts flow smoothly, people nod along." Eryn Newman at the Australian National University, for instance, has shown that the simple presence of an image alongside a statement increases our trust in its accuracy – even if it is only tangentially related to the claim.
Then there are 'Adventists alarmists' who for some reason feel they must promulgate spurious news in order to incite attention or fear amongst members to the fact that we are living in the last days.
The reality is that many people reflexively share content without even thinking about its accuracy. So how can you avoid being caught out with fake news and more importantly refrain from passing on messages that have no accuracy? Here are some steps:
1) Verify the story
Before pressing the send button to your entire contact list, verify the story! It makes sense. Remember by passing on unverified news items you are contributing toward gossip and hearsay. Don't be a naive participant. Be informed!
2) Challenge the sender
Text back the sender and ask relevant questions about their source and accuracy. I have had to do this countless times and on almost all occasions the answer back is 'I assumed it was true' 'sent as seen', 'just passing on'. Ask the sender to stop forwarding the message until they can verify the story.
3) Check the website links
Some messages have a website linked to it. This can seem to suggest authenticity as it's on a website for all to see. However, there are websites that thrive on propaganda stories or are designed specially with an alternative agenda. Check the source of the website, are these links to official Public Health England or Ireland websites or not? Play detective and look at fact-checking websites. Poynter.org has a Coronavirus facts database that has collated many of the most misleading messages.
4) Check the date/pictures
Social media often regurgitates old stories. Some return with a slightly different angle. I received videos that were clearly taken several years ago but have been reedited with a new spin. Watch this video prepared by ITV News on avoiding fake videos.
5) Don't share!
Unless you are prepared to take the time to go through the steps and follow the advice above then simply, don't share. The Government's SHARE checklist is a handy tool to take a look at if you're unsure about the validity of any claims you have been sent or have seen on social media.
In the book of Acts 17:11 we are told the Bereans, "were more noble of character than those of Thessalonica for they…examined the scriptures to see if what Paul said was true." Fake news could not have been shared amongst the Bereans for they had the practice of searching the scriptures for themselves.
As Adventists we pride ourselves in being known as the 'people of the Book' ‒ let us follow the example of the Bereans and search for ourselves so that we will not be misled by any social media 'wind of doctrine' or false story. We allow our naivety and spiritual ineptness to be revealed when we get caught up in a campaign of spreading unverified information. Is this the means of our enemy’s ploy when it comes to his major deceptions? Don't get caught out and certainly don't be a participator in sharing such news.
You can be assured that as time passes, we will receive many more suspect social media stories. Let us learn now to be astute, responsible and alert with the information that comes our way.
(For further reading see BBC news article by David Robson here.)
Richard Daly - BUC Communication and Media Director