Misinformation spreading faster than coronavirus, researcher warns

Misinformation and conspiracy theories are spreading faster than the coronavirus, and malicious actors are exploring the theories for political gain and to commit fraud, warns a Swedish researcher.

Sweden’s Malmö University researcher Johan Farkas explains that falsehoods, rumours and conspiracy theories thrive during a crisis thrive during a crisis, and even more when the crisis revolves around a threatening disease.

The combination of these two factors in a digital age is a dangerous cocktail, according to Farkas, a PhD student in Media and Communication Studies, who specializes in digital propaganda and misinformation.

In a recent global survey, more than 70 per cent of respondents said they worry about fake news and false information about the COVID-19 outbreak. 45% find it difficult to source reliable information about the virus.

The study was conducted in March in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States as part of the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Farkas has a number of recommendations to stay safe and informed during this unprecedented crisis.

The researcher wants us, as individuals, to be extra careful about checking sources of information on social media and help our network by sharing the latest guidelines from health authorities.

Farks also points out that it is very important that authorities prioritise clear communication and keep citizens updated with visible and easily accessible information..

“Just as we should be proactive in stopping the spread of infection, we must be proactive in preventing the spread of rumours and misinformation,” Farkas says. “Authorities have to prioritize clear communication, focus on reaching out to all target groups, and pay attention to whether falsehoods start circulating on social media.”

“Millions of people are searching for covid-19 information right now. It is crucial that credible information is visible online,” adds Farkas. “Tech companies and democratic governments of the world have to work together on this. This way we can counteract the amount of misinformation.”

Farkas’s recommendations come as China faces heavy criticism for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, including false claims by Foreign Minister official Lijian Zhao that the virus outbreak began in the United States.

Twitter has refused to take down tweets by Chinese officials despite calls to crackdown on misinformation on the social media platform.