William ComcowichWilliam Comcowich

The world suffers from a pandemic of fake news surrounding the coronavirus. Emissions from crematoriums in China could be seen from space. Russia unleashed 500 lions to keep people indoors. Doctors in London are being mugged. Vitamins or certain snake oils cure the disease. How about gargling with warm water and salt and vinegar? Or inhaling hot air from a hair dryer? All fake.

If you’re interested, BuzzFeed News posts a running list of debunked hoaxes.

Heading down a dark path

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” If we believe misinformation rather than facts, “we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony.”

People are prone to share misinformation during times of crisis or anxiety. They’re eager for information, solutions and reassurances. Even people who should know better share misinformation on social media. They glance over posts without clicking on the link to the supposed news article.

Overwhelmed with fake news and misinformation about the virus, social media platforms are working with WHO to spread accurate information about the virus. Facebook provides WHO with free ads and blocks ads touting bogus miracle cures.

How PR can help stop coronavirus fake news

Monitor social media. Social media monitoring combined with monitoring of traditional media can notify PR of coronavirus fake news associated with their brands, for instance, if a post claims their product can cure the disease. Creating a media monitoring dashboard dedicated to the coronavirus can improve the organization’s media monitoring and measurement.

Respond swiftly to counter misinformation. Real-time email alerts will quickly inform when your company, products or other keywords are mentioned online. Immediately alerted, PR teams can expose a fraudulent report. Not all misinformation needs to be refuted, especially if it has had limited circulation or is trivial.

Consider human analysts. Automated monitoring and measurement software may not be able to detect a fake news story. That may require human analysts who are knowledgeable about the organization and its products. The content analysis to identify fake news stories could be outsourced to the media monitoring service or done by the organization’s own staff.

Expose all fake news. Even if fake news isn’t related to their brands or products, PR and marketing people can still expose the misinformation by posting the facts on their organizations’ accounts in addition to their personal profiles.

How to spot coronavirus fake news

Samantha Vanderslott, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Vaccine Group and the Oxford Martin School, offers tips on how to spot fake news about COVID-19.

Consider the source. Misinformation often refers to general sources like “Taiwanese experts” or “Japanese doctors.” Information from “a friend of a friend” is a red flag for a rumor.

Verify information. Check if stories are repeated on websites of mainstream news outlets, government health agencies and WHO.

Questionable logos. Check that the organization’s logo used in the message looks identical to the official website.

Bad English. Credible journalists and organizations are less likely to make repeated spelling and grammar mistakes. Anything where the grammar is “off” should be suspect. Anything written entirely in capital letters or containing a lot of exclamation marks should raise suspicions.

Pretend accounts. Some fake accounts mimic the real thing. For example, the unofficial Twitter handle @BBCNewsTonight, resembles the legitimate @BBCNews account. The fake account shared a false story about the actor Daniel Radcliffe testing positive for coronavirus.

Over-encouragement to share. Be wary if the message presses you to share. This is how viral messaging works.

“Whenever you’re tempted to share a dramatic snippet of “information” about Covid-19 that’s just popped into your social media feed—don’t. Just say no,” urges John Naughton, a columnist at The Guardian. “You’ll feel better, and you’ll be slowing the propagation of a pernicious meme —which, after all, is just another kind of virus.”

Social media is suffering from a deluge of fake news and misinformation about COVID-19. Communications professionals can take a leading role on limiting the misinformation by monitoring social media and posting accurate information on social media.

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William J. Comcowich is Glean.info Interim CEO and member of its Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.