With the WHO recently warning that the battle against COVID-19 is “nowhere near over,” governments and media bodies must prepare themselves for the continuing struggle against pandemic-related misinformation. As the situation evolves, so too do the strategies of bad actors seeking to spread untruths. The public may have grown savvy to the rough early attempts at misinformation, but repeated government communication on the matter has provided a template for those wishing to craft fake news with the appearance of ‘authenticity.’
Ireland’s current lockdown measures are set to last until May 5th, though prevailing opinion seems to be that the measures will be extended beyond that point. However, until the government confirms this, a climate of uncertainty remains. Dates associated with repeatedly revised lockdown measures become flashpoints for misinformation, leveraging the public’s expectation of news to sow confusion and anxiety. Minister for Justice Charlie Flannigan recently tweeted a warning against “a fake list of changes to Govt health measures to tackle #COVID19.” The list he was referring to had circulated via WhatsApp and purported to be an account of government measures covering the period from May 5th through June 5th. With its set dates and bullet points, it ably apes the veneer of official communications.
WhatsApp – a direct messaging app with over 2 billion users worldwide – is a particularly potent tool for misinformation, as its chats are encrypted and the source of forwarded messages is not clear to those who receive them, thus making moderation of sources or users very difficult. The Facebook-owned app reacted to a “significant increase” in the number of forwards since the beginning of the pandemic by limiting the number of times users can forward messages (reducing it from 20 to 5) and introducing a label for heavily forwarded messages (any message that has been forwarded more than 5 times). The app claims that this has led to a 25 decrease in such messages. However, conscious of their limitations in dealing with this issue, WhatsApp officials have urged the public to engage with the WHO and fact-checking bodies when they encounter suspicious messages.
The pandemic has triggered an acceleration in concern over misinformation and the strategies used to address it. An article for the Journal, debunking the WhatsApp message mentioned by Minister Flannigan, closes with instructions on how readers can discern fake news and misinformation. On a similar note, the government’s ‘Be Media Smart’ web campaign has turned its focus to pandemic-related misinformation. While these strategies are significant steps in fighting misinformation in the short-term, one of the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis may be the evidence of the importance of media literacy on a nationwide level, providing the impetus for it to be integrated into school curricula and beyond.