Pandemic or Infodemic? 2020, the Year of ‘Fake News’?

Covid Anniversary Blog

The information paradox dictates that as news sources multiply and information becomes overabundant, the more likely it is for exaggerated, implausible and untruthful stories to gain traction. The pandemic aside, it is the ‘infodemic’ we should now be fighting?

Over the last 12 months, conspiracy theories have not only become a main mode of communication and information exchange but have also altered public behaviour. From failing to seek medical help for fear of infection, to wearing QAnon T-shirts in Trafalgar Square to protest the involvement of Bill Gates and George Soros in starting the pandemic; we’ve seen an array of reactive conduct. Paradoxically, when it is easier than ever to access information, people are still most easily convinced by the old tried and tested narratives: find the villain, and then blame them for all your problems.

For us communication experts, this is not surprising. Our theoretical forefathers Gustave Le Bon, Walter Lippmann, Sigmund Freud and his nephew, the master of spin Edward Louis Bernays, believed in herd behaviour and collective psychology. Exaggerated, attention grabbing stories told simply, in recurring patterns, are paradoxically comforting in their horrifying implications. They have an air of familiarity in our global village of whispers, rumour and hearsay; while fear also makes us feel alive. With no direct previous experience of a global pandemic and contradictory information from officials and politicians, we instead trust our nearest and dearest no matter how (un)reliable their sources may be.

We also tend to favour illiberal policies. We want order, we want control, we want structure. We are the generations that grew up with disaster movies and fictional stories of alien invasions, bioweapons and behaviour altering microchips. These stories always start with a villain, usually an outsider, plunging the world into chaos; and end with order being restored, no matter how despotic or militarised that intervention might be.

Yet simultaneously, the pandemic is also reviving serious journalism, with increasing collaboration among scientists having been thrust scientific research into the limelight. It has also led to a reversal in the once lukewarm interest in journalism, medicine and sciences as career choices. Applications for medical schools have shot up. Georgetown University reported a 24% spike and a 40% growth in applications from people of colour. The impact of the pandemic on certain communities has revealed real issues and inequalities that need to be addressed. Access to specific underrepresented groups is now more important than ever. The growth in online news consumption has also led to newsrooms working more creatively, implementing technological innovations, recruiting more diversely, giving a voice to the voiceless.

What we don’t know is whether this is a momentary reaction, or the changes are long-standing. To assess that we will need more than one year, but perhaps it is a good start in countering, or even ‘immunising’ us against the fake news ‘infodemic’.

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu is a Reader in Communication and ISR Fellow at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 4th May 2020 by Ruxandra and which can be found here.

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