I was sitting on the kitchen counter, scrolling through interesting news articles on my iPhone. My mom walked in and put down our week’s worth of mail on the counter. I looked up and began to sort through the mail. One of the items was a newspaper written in Chinese.
At first, I assumed it was my grandfather’s newspaper; however, as I took a closer look, it wasn’t the same company. It was in Chinese, but it was from a newspaper called The Epoch Times. Flipping through the pages, I quickly scanned some articles about COVID-19, the upcoming election and China. I soon realized that glancing at the dramatic headlines was enough to make me slam the newspaper shut.
“Why would anyone believe this nonsense?” I exclaimed to myself.
The truth is that 80% of consumers in the United States have reported seeing fake news related to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Statista.
According to NewsGuard, unreliable news sources more than doubled their share of engagement in 2020 alone.
What caused this?
The year 2020, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, faced extensive media coverage during this modern age of technology. With medical literature and news sources being easily accessed through social media, people were given information regarding the disease on a daily basis. Even on Instagram, I was able to access The New York Times, Reuters and even The Babylon Bee.
While I was able to learn a lot about COVID-19 through news sites on social media and the CDC, I also encountered misinformation, which can also easily spread on social media platforms. Unlike disinformation, which is used to purposely deceive others, misinformation may not be intended to deceive, although it is still misleading and false information.
“Misinformation is one of the most serious threats to public health, and it is most damaging when it fuels vaccine hesitancy,” Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne said in April, according to the PAHO website.
Researchers from Stanford evaluated the spread of misinformation on social media by using a model that evaluated how susceptible individuals can be to misinformation spreading it to others. The researchers concluded that messages can spread faster if targeted at small numbers of influential people with large followings.
People who are the most susceptible to misinformation are those active on social media, the elderly, the youth and those with fewer years of formal education.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Americans receive their news from social media. Individuals at political extremes are most likely to believe information that aligns with their personal biases.
A recent study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that a growing number of Americans are believing conspiracy theories related to the vaccine. Those who are frequently exposed to the theories are more likely to harden their existing political beliefs.
“When you begin to reduce trust in experts and agencies telling you that vaccines are safe, you’re creating all kinds of susceptibilities that can be exploited for partisan gain,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center told Axios.
While companies such as Facebook have been under fire for being passive platforms for vaccine misinformation, local print, broadcast and radio outlets can also have an impact. A 2019 Knight-Gallup study found that 45% of Americans trust reporting from the local news “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared with 31% for national news.
“People think they are trusting their local news, something reliable and familiar, when in fact they are trusting misinformation,” Rachel Moran, a fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, said. “It is a huge problem and growing.”
False information can stir mistrust among the American public, fueling political conflict. During the 2020 election, there were false claims claiming that mail ballots would cause massive election fraud. After the election, former President Donald Trump declared that the election was stolen from him, there was massive fraud and the victory of Joe Biden was illegitimate.
This ultimately led to the 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol, where five people were killed and many others, including law enforcement, were injured. In addition to supporters of the former president, far-right groups such as QAnon and Proud Boys took part in the violence.Yet, in the aftermath, many supporters spread theories that the violence was staged, or was committed by other groups such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
Misinformation plays a big role in the polarization of our country when each side has their own version of the facts. Left unchecked, misinformation will continue to spread doubt and affect views of elections in the future.
However, there is a way to combat misinformation. Understanding the difference between biased reporting and fake reporting can help. Labeling misinformation can benefit the people reading as well. With the rise of technology, it is important to remember to stay vigilant and educated, especially on social media.