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False information or “fake news”?

Accurate information is of the essence in a crisis. Be it war, terrorist attack or a global pandemic, the wrong information costs lives.

In Iran, for example, some have seen alcohol – which is forbidden in the country – as a remedy against coronavirus. People have died from drinking illegally concocted brews. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, has found it necessary to point out that coronavirus cannot be spread through 5G mobile networks.

The French research institute Inserm has debunked some misplaced ideas about coronavirus circulating on social media. There are no foods, such as garlic or fennel, or hygiene products, such as sprays or mouthwashes, that prevent infection. The WHO, accurately, labelled its statement on 5G as “myth-busting.” Inserm, however, conflated social media misinformation with “fake news” from traditional media, its “fires stoked” by coronavirus – but without giving any examples from the mainstream press.

Why does the distinction matter?

Because words mean things. “Fake” and “news” make an awkward juxtaposition. A fake is a forgery: a 10-dollar note is objectively either genuine or fake. News is what is reported by the press. Outside of public service organisations, it is usually not available for free and there is no reason why it should be. Social media gives endless information for free and, by and large, you get what you pay for.

Inserm’s statement on March 23 was prompted by a video on social media which spread a wild conspiracy theory about the origins of the virus. Conspiracy theories are exactly that: they are not news. No-one would label the latest bright idea about the assassination of John F. Kennedy as “fake news.” Why, then, do we do this for coronavirus?

News organisations, like everyone else, can get facts wrong. This is usually rectified by the publication of a correction. It always hurts, is not intentional and is not “fake”. Differences of opinion over the interpretation of facts can be addressed by allowing interested parties a right of reply. “Fake news” would mean a random person breaking into a printing press or the website of a publication and putting out a story. Anything is possible, but this is extremely rare.

The rise of social media creates a level playing field for the distribution of information that varies wildly in quality. But such false information is simply that: typing, spreading and sharing an objectively false belief into a social media page does not make it any more than gossip. Many countries are seen by their populations as having reacted too slowly to the dangers of coronavirus. It would be hard to argue that policy responses were delayed by a lack of reporting on its spread – or that a free, uncensored press in China would not have contributed to a faster understanding of the scale of the original outbreak.

Initiatives to improve the quality of information on social media have been accelerating. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been tightening up on certification of content. Google has introduced a fact-checking tool, and the WHO has its own WhatsApp chatbot to counter false information about coronavirus.

Such initiatives are only the beginning: the struggle against false information has become a matter of public security. Globally coordinated regulation of social media may be necessary. But using the creative metaphor of “fake news” carries its own danger: that of a press obstructed in the performance of its public interest role by people who label any news coverage that they don’t like as “fake.”

Conflating the traditional press with social media leads us into a world of grey area relativism. In an emergency, we should not need to waste time arguing about what the facts are. The need for a certification process confirming that information on social media comes from a reliable source has never been greater.