Will Fake News About Covid Masks Cost 33,000 Lives?

Three questions you should ask when you want to identify fake news: Internet Scambusters #918

No apologies for returning to the subject of fake news again in this week’s issue.

Social media giants are stepping up the fight against misinformation and urging users to be more skeptical about what they read and share.

With thousands of lives potentially at risk, we’ll tell you Facebook’s three key questions, and other actions you can take to beat the fakers.

Let’s get started…


Will Fake News About Covid Masks Cost 33,000 Lives?


What are the three most important questions you should ask when weighing up whether something you’re reading is fake news?

According to social media giant Facebook, they are:

  1. Where’s it from? If there’s no source, search for one. A trusted source is your safest option, Facebook says, in its ads for the campaign. If you can’t find the source or the story just doesn’t look right, be careful.
  2. What’s missing? Get the whole story, not just the headline. Remember too that images can be faked. And check if other people are commenting on the report.
  3. How does it make you feel? People who make false news try to manipulate feelings. Sometimes, it’s just intended as a joke but other times it’s downright malicious. If it gets your hackles up, maybe that’s just what the writer intended.

These questions are the cornerstone of a campaign Facebook is launching after working on the fake news issue with British fact-checking charity Full Fact.

For now, the advertising campaign is starting out in Europe, Africa and the Middle East but hopes are that it will also appear in the US in coming months.

The aim is to slow people down in jumping to conclusions when they see a report that interests them.

Emotional Response

As website SocialMediaToday.com observes:

“The modern news cycle is fueled by clicks, so publishers are essentially incentivized to spark emotional response in order to maximize reach. An article titled ‘The Origins of COVID-19’ simply won’t get as much viral traction as one titled ‘China’s Role in the Creation of COVID-19’ — yet they could feasibly include the exact same content.

“One title sparks an emotional response, the other does not. The more readers take the time to question this element, the more skeptical — and likely less divisive — the subsequent debate will be.”

The other leading social media site, Twitter, has also acted to caution users, Anyone who tries to share a post that they haven’t even opened will see a pop-up warning saying, “Headlines don’t tell the full story.”

Facebook, Twitter and many other social media operators are belatedly trying to highlight fake or even just suspect news by banning or removing items such as conspiracy theories relating to the Coronavirus pandemic and, most recently, the assertion that the new 5G cellular service endangers health.

There’s not a shred of scientific evidence for this latter claim, but it has led to arson attacks on 5G masts in the UK.

But it’s not just damaged masts that’s worrying social media experts. Misleading claims about the safety of facemasks continues to persuade people not to wear them. And that, says independent news outlet, Grist.org, means that “fake news is killing people.”

Proof? The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation tells us that, if everyone wore a mask in public, this would save 33,000 lives by October. Losing those lives is a terrible price to pay for following fake news about the role and safety of masks.

Grist quotes education professor Gale Sinatra, at the University of Southern California, as saying: “Misinformation about Covid is spreading faster than the virus itself.”

Studies have also shown that fake news actually spreads faster on social media than real news.

“People on Twitter are 70 percent more likely to share false news than the real stuff,” Grist’s Kate Yoder writes. “And it’s difficult to shut down.” In fact, the more an item is repeated, the more likely it is to stick.

That’s why, with the pandemic raging and a Presidential election looming, concerns about the impact on political and social stability are mounting.

Foreign Agencies Spread Misinformation

Already suspected state-backed agencies in China, Russia and Turkey are reported to be targeting the West with misinformation about the Covid outbreak. They want to undermine trust in public institutions.

A study from the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute found these organizations have been spreading unfounded conspiracy theories aimed at creating unrest and confusion. In some cases, the Institute says, these agencies blend real information with misleading or false news, creating uncertainty among the public trying to make sense of the pandemic.

Three More Actions

In addition to the Facebook questions outlined above, here are three things you can do to reduce the risk of falling victim to fake news:

  1. Get your information from known and respected media. In an era when even some trusted media outlets are accused of publishing fake news, check the information with multiple sources. News agencies, such as AP and Reuters, are among those noted for impartial reporting.
  2. Use fact-checking sites to confirm or question accuracy. You’ll find a useful list of these, fully updated in recent weeks, at: https://research.ewu.edu/journalism/factcheck. This site also has a list of 11 giveaway signs that a report might not be genuine.
  3. Check out our earlier report on fake news, Why Fake News is a Bigger Threat Than Ever, for more information and tips.

Coronavirus Alert of the Week

Staying with the Covid pandemic, the increase in the use of the Internet for online shopping has led to a massive leap in the number of consumer complaints lodged with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In just two recent months, the Commission received 34,000 complaints about online shopping. More than half related to ordered items that were never delivered, and they were mostly for personal safety items such as masks and hand sanitizer as well as household goods like toilet rolls.

The best way to avoid these scams is to either buy locally or order from online retailers you know and trust.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!