April 24, 2020 (Updated )
It’s just gone 7pm, you’ve clocked off from a long shift working from home, and your phone pings. It’s a message from the family WhatsApp group. But, far from being comforted, you’re faced with yet another piece of misinformation about the coronavirus.
“At one point I felt exhausted fact-checking for them,” says Tobí Akingbadé, a freelance journalist and the founder of the Yellow Cup Podcast. “But,” she asks, “if I don’t, who will? Who knows – maybe my contribution with fact-checking flattens the fake news curve?”
Like many of us, Tobí is part of a family group chat, created to help keep people in touch. In her case there were more than 50 people, and she found herself getting “untrue messages in the masses” – all of them focused on COVID-19. “My family and community believe in [them] wholeheartedly,” she tells Journo Resources. And, it’s a situation many of us will recognise.
While conversations around “fake news” are by no means new, the coronavirus has ignited new waves of misinformation. From books that allegedly predicted the pandemic (spoiler, they didn’t), to preventing the virus by gargling and drinking water (it doesn’t work), groups and chats are awash with false claims.
“It can be really tiring for a lot of people who already work in very news heavy jobs, like journalism,” agrees Rachael Krishna, a reporter at fact-checking charity FullFact. “Everyone is struggling right now, and having to keep doing that work, having to keep talking about it in your family WhatsApp groups, outside of your nine-to-five is tiring.”
‘We Fill The Void To Feel A Sense Of Control’
However, before you can begin to tackle misinformation, especially within complex family groups, it’s important to understand the context of how it starts. “Falsehoods and half-truths are not new,” explains Laura Garcia of FirstDraft, an organisation which helps both journalists and the public verify information. “It’s part of human nature – we gossip, we share information, and more importantly, at times of crisis like right now, where there are information voids, we fill it with anything we can to feel a sense of control.”
While scientists and researchers are busy playing catch up with the virus – trying to work out how it spreads and what we can do to stop it – the rest of us are using anything we can to fill the gap. “This isn’t specific to coronavirus,” continues Laura, “it’s just human nature and how we operate”. It’s probably fair to say a worldwide pandemic ticks the box of crisis, with rumours and misinformation going into overload.
“It’s been really, really busy,” agrees Rachael “A month ago, I’d say it was really quite intense. At the moment, touchwood, it is starting to plateau a little bit, [but] the misinformation actually was really quite high before lockdown, when it seemed like even a lot of people in powerful positions didn’t really know what this was. Misinformation thrives in that area of uncertainty.”
But, it’s not just the amount of bad information that’s the problem. Ross McKay moderates a number of community Facebook groups, which have a membership base of more than 15,000 people and says that while the amount of posts is broadly similar, increased engagement with them has become a problem. “There’s been a steady undercurrent of bullshit everywhere for a while,” he tells Journo Resources, “but what’s happened is that it’s been concentrated. Because people are only talking about one thing these stories are being amplified.”
“Misinformation was really quite high before lockdown. It thrives in areas of uncertainty.”
“That’s dangerous,” he continues, “because [the response] ‘but a lot of people are saying it’ is a powerful thing, even if those people are all sharing the same, wrong thing. And on family or community groups it’s harder to fight.” The other thing it’s key to understand, is why people share fake news. “We’re doing it from a place of wanting to keep our loved ones safe,” explains Laura. “You think ‘I’m not really sure if this treatment I’m sharing is 100 percent true, but just in case I’m going to share it what my family, because I want them to be safe.”
‘You Need To Make Sure It’s Absolutely Watertight’
But, just how do you deal with fake news both effectively and without causing a fight? From a debunking perspective, it’s worth looking at how the national media has attempted to break through. Luke Bailey, a senior editor at the i Paper, has part of a series of articles debunking common WhatsApp myths. The process starts from staff members sending in misinformation they’ve been sent, which other reporters will try to assess the scale of, before rigorously looking into the most prevalent claims.
“It’s key to make sure it’s absolutely watertight,” he tells Journo Resources. “To do that, you need to go a bit more extreme than other people do. You need first to know, where did this come from? Because you can’t really knock it down without knowing who was the first to talk about it.”
Another problem with so-called fake news, as Luke explains, is the nugget of believability at its core. It could, for example, stem from an official comment taken out of context, or a YouTube doctor who lacks credentials. But for many, it will feel believable. Which is why Luke thinks it’s even more vital to be able to show people “the whole run of why it’s wrong”.
Equally, he says it’s vital to find experts to contradict fake news. “You can’t just say there’s no evidence, you need to all the right people, to say ‘here’s the thing…’. It does take a bit more work, but it needs to be bullet proof.” It’s an approach that’s worth bearing in mind in family WhatsApp groups too – wading in to say something is wrong is highly unlikely to work if you don’t understand what went wrong yourself.
Websites To Help With Fact Checking and Debunks
FullFact: A UK charity with a team of fact-checkers who go through thousands of claims shared online. You’re very likely to find a well-researched debunk ready and waiting for you.
FirstDraft: If you or your family want to gen up on how to do some simple fact-checking yourself, First Draft are a great place to start. They’ve produced lots of resources for reporters, and are also running regular webinars.
Snopes: A slightly more US-focused site, Snopes is a useful resources for debunks nonetheless. They cover a huge range of rumours and half-truths from across the internet.
The strategy seems to be paying off for the i Paper. While they can never be sure they’re reaching the same people who would have seen the original rumour, the pieces do tend to pick up a lot of traffic from dark social. “So that means it’s going into WhatsApp groups and email sand all that sort of stuff,” Luke explains. However, while it’s useful to look at how outlets deal with misinformation, there’s an additional layer of complexity when talking to family and friends these websites don’t have to navigate.
A Generational Divide That’s Difficult To Overcome
Nimra Shahid, a journalism student at City University, has also been the receiver of fake news, but feels there are more factors at play than you might think at first. Speaking to Journo Resources, she talks about a generational gap between younger and older family members, as well as a lack of trusted and accessible resources for underrepresented groups.
“I never actually had a family WhatsApp group until the pandemic happened. As much as some people might be shamed for sharing unverified claims, I can emphasise with why they might do this,” she adds. “If they feel underserved by the news, they may place a lot more trust in a particular community, neighbour, or family member than in current affairs, as they see these people as having their best interests at heart.
“If people feel underserved by the news, they may place a lot more trust in a particular community, neighbour of family member than in current affairs.”
“I find it exhausting,” she adds. “Initially I tried to explain gently why I didn’t think the unverified claims were real and why it wasn’t a good idea to share them. But they’d still keep coming along with other conspiracy theories.” Now her and her brother have taken a different approach, by trying to outweigh half-truths with memes and other posts. “It’s massively changed the discourse of our WhatsApp chat,” she concludes. But how can you make a tangible difference to the way people think, without wearing yourself down? For Laura, it’s about taking an empathy and learning-based approach.
“The moment you call something fake, you’re asking people to choose a camp,” she tells Journo Resources. “It’s if you believe me, or you don’t believe me and there’s no shade of grey in-between. It makes people choose based on identity rather than facts. Have those conversations in an inclusive way – basically teaching them how to question and analyse.” In short, almost work through the puzzle together.
For example, if someone says it was sent from a friend, ask who the friend is, and where they work. If it’s come from a friend of a friend ask what they know for sure and how much they trust the source. “Just like they have the power to spread it, they also have the power to stop it,” Laura adds.
For Luke, it’s also about pointing to the resources that people trust. “Different people trust different outlets. Some people very much trust the World Health Organisation, some trust the NHS, some trust the BBC, if that debunk is in all those different places, then it will reach the person it needs to reach.”
But, it’s still vital to look after yourself. “Now we’re all working from home, keeping that separation between your home life and work life is really hard,” explains Laura. “And that spills over into our friends and families because we’re kind of doing the job over and over again. The way I’ve found that keeps me a little bit sane is I’m picking my battles. I’m picking out specific things people share to ask more questions or show them how I quickly debunked it and bring them with me on that journey.”
“It might not change their mind on where coronavirus comes from, but I am hopefully making them think twice before they forward something on. And if we start to do that together, then hopefully the information that we share and the quality of that information is going to start to improve.” And, for Tobí at least, things have taken a turn in the right direction. After fighting off the coronavirus herself, her family have taken a small step back from misinformation. “Now it’s one every two days,” she tells us. “That’s a miracle.”