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.

Image by Vertigo3d

Wither Fake News: COVID-19 and its Impact on Journalism

The current pandemic has reproposed, this time with more acuity than ever, key questions for the media and journalism.

First, the current crisis has reconfirmed that our reality is indeed substantially shaped by media. We live in an era of deep mediatization, as researchers call it (see Andreas Hepp’s Deep Mediatization book published in 2019, among many others), with every aspect of our lives shaped by media technologies. It is likely that reality, society and interpersonal communications will forever be changed by this. As our WhatsApp and Zoom communications continue, we will definitely come out at the other end speaking and communicating differently.

Fake news is also now a staple feature of media production and consumption. It seems though that this virus is worsening the widespread infection of established functions of journalism: the promotion and defence of truth, verification and expertise.

Journalism IS defined, at its core, as a discipline of verification. Social media, citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and the speed of breaking news have already impacted on journalistic practices, our trust in news outlets and our understanding of truth and expertise. The crisis is now asking tough questions about the ways fake news, conspiracy theories and those, whoever you believe they are, behind them, have managed to relativize truth and trust, and have relaxed the rules about who is allowed to speak and with what knowledge and expertise.

However, it is not all bad news. It means we need verified and verifiable journalism more than ever. There is evidence that consumption of local news – not long ago a weakening and on-its-way-out branch of journalism – is increasing, as people are keen to understand the pandemic realities of their local areas.

We have more ‘proper’ experts invited to speak in the media, and that’s good news for scientists and academics too. More people are tuning into public service broadcasters for those old-fashioned qualities; balance and verification. The Advertising Standards Authority is also beginning to crack down on misleading web ads for COVID-19 treatments, as reported by The Drum last week. However, this last piece of news will also add to many liberals’ concerns about the long-term negative impact on democracy of increased regulation, policing and the use of emergency crisis laws to deepen dictatorial tendencies (does anyone care about Hungary?).

Finally, we know that COVID-19 is changing journalism and media production in terms of practice as well: the ways newsrooms operate, the rules of news gathering and interviewing, the screen aesthetics and on location shooting. With home schooling in full swing and likely to continue, the pandemic is also asking the creative industries, more generally, to rethink the way employees are operating. This is particularly acute in an industry where the practice of long shifts has forever disadvantaged women. Will the future of women in journalism and media be better or worse following this crisis? I will gladly leave that baton there for someone else to take up and run with. 

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