In times of increased uncertainty and crisis, it is the natural reaction of people to turn to the media for information, orientation and guidance. Unfortunately, increased media consumption may lead to incidental exposure to online disinformation, ranging from fake news to conspiracy theories, and fake remedies. The You Check project responds to this phenomenon by empowering users to apply technological solutions, such as the InVID verification plug-in, for checking the accuracy of information the encounter online. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and media consumption. Insights from Romania

A recent survey implemented in Romania between March 20-23, 2020 (Population: adult population, not institutionalized, of Romania with an Internet connection; Sample: Stratified, using online panel of 1160 respondents; Sample error: +/-3%, at a 95% confidence level) investigates the public perceptions regarding the pandemic.

Results indicate that people’s media use intensified during this state of emergency, with 70.5% of respondents admitting that, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, they follow the news more or much more than the usual. Their daily media diet for accessing coronavirus-related news relies especially on social networking sites (38% percent), legacy media (such as TV, print and online newspapers, and radio – 36.3%), and official sites (28%).

Nevertheless, the large majority of Romanian citizens are in doubt regarding the quality of the information they receive. When thinking about the general information on the COVID-19 pandemic, 44.1% feel uncertain of very uncertain, whereas 24.1% feel moderately uncertain, suggesting that people experience difficulties in discerning between credible and misleading information.

More information on the results of the survey can be found here

The COVID-19 pandemic and online disinformation

Increased media consumption during this period of crisis does not necessarily mean that citizens are more informed, especially since they rely on social networking sites for news. There is consistent evidence that online disinformation shared extensively on social media and private messaging apps mounted to an actual infodemic, as the World Health Organization calls it (i.e. over-abundance of information, accurate or not).  

A recent initiative, “The International Fact-Checking Network”, reuniting at least 48 fact-checking organizations from 30 countries and hosted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies issued a communication on January 28th, 2020 about their recent efforts in fighting three waves of disinformation about the new coronavirus. First, there were the news about a new epidemic outbreak in the Wuhan region in China. Conspiracy theories on the intentional or accidental release of the virus from laboratories quickly followed. For example, a ZeroHedge article with the headline, “Coronavirus Contains ‘HIV Insertions,’ Stoking Fears Over Artificially Created Bioweapon,” cited an unpublished manuscript by Indian scientists, which was later retracted voluntarily by the authors.

Although the article amended some of the claims, the clickbait title was left untouched. Another article, hosted by the same website, blamed China for smuggling the virus from a lab in Winnipeg to a military lab in Wuhan, where it “leaked” out. Other examples include “false connection” techniques used by a Russian channel to argue that the United States was spreading the 2019 coronavirus in Asia. Another Kremlin-led conspiracy targets the NATO forces, who allegedly planned an attack in the form of bio terrorism, and are responsible for spreading the pandemic throughout the EU in order to neutralize Russia. A set of theories argued that the virus was deliberately released upon the population for the sake of commercial interests of Bill Gates and other producers of vaccines.

As the disease continued to spread, and Governments started to communicate intensely on prevention and containment measures, a new plethora of misleading or downright false claims emerged. According to professional fact-checkers, a distinct set of misleading information on miracle cures first originated in Taiwan, but was then spread and translated in numerous languages across the Globe. The messages were later translated in Italian, English, and Spanish. Another suggestion, to permanently keep the throat moist, was shared tens of thousands times on Facebook. Similar posts, sometimes slightly altered, circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp in Canada, Pakistan and India.

A follow-up regarding the role of Ibuprofen in aggravating the infection triggered a lot of confusion in social media. The compelling scenario went as follows: someone had a friend/ relative working as a doctor at the university hospital of Vienna, warning that taking Ibuprofen while infected with COVID-19 weakened the response of the immune system. An audio recording of the message spread in German, and was later on translated in multiple languages and in other forms (such as text). The University of Vienna even published a disclaimer, stating that no faculty member made such claims, not even in informal settings. The exact scenario took place in Romania, too, with a recorded voice of an alleged female doctor” from the main hospital for infectious diseases in Bucharest, sharing advice with a “friend” on the same topic; that audio message was heavily circulated on social media, on the encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp, too.   

More recent instances of disinformation reflect the fears of the population regarding the more drastic measures undertaken by governments.  Panic-inducing rumors announcing lock-downs, cancellations, and interdictions became viral, especially via private messaging apps. In Belgium, a WhatsApp audio message featuring an unnamed woman warned about the imminent implementation of the maximum pandemic plan, while other similar recordings discussed the complete lockdown of the country. In Poland, rumors involved the government cutting off transportation to Warsaw and zoning the city, while in France, another source with a so-called “very well-placed uncle” warned about the soon-to-follow full quarantine. The list could continue with similar examples in Portugal, Romania, and on other continents (America, India, Africa).

The afore-mentioned project continues up to the moment of writing; its regular reports build evidence on an unceasing succession of disinformation waves, revolving around several issues/ topics/ events.

Recommendations for citizens

We strongly advice citizens to evaluate the credibility of the information they received though fact-checking practices, such as: checking the information from official sources and fact-checking websites, evaluating the credibility of the source of the information, relying on good reputation journalists and sources, comparing various sources of information (not only social media) to check the facts, using images and video verification tools to identify altered multi-media news. We, the You Check project team members, are devoted to supporting European citizens in this endeavor by offering know-how and technological solutions.