Are fake messages really a problem?

Tips for dealing with fake news about Corona

The world is worried about the spread of the coronavirus and many people are unsettled. The events in digital communication channels also contribute to this. Whether manipulative information about the closure of grocery stores, supposed miracle cures against the virus or absurd conspiracy theories: Many people are confronted with such misleading information on Facebook, Whatsapp and Co. While relatively little is known about the origin of these messages, the mechanisms by which they were distributed have been well studied.

The professor for online journalism Katarina Bader and the expert for media security and IT forensics Martin Steinebach deal in their research with combating such disinformation, including in the DORIAN project funded by the Federal Ministry of Research.

Question: Many people are currently receiving questionable messages about the coronavirus, especially via messenger services and social networks. What is the best way to tell whether a message is true or not?

Bader: A simple and usually good check is to google news again. Debunking initiatives such as Mimikama and fact check are currently working very intensively. Corrections can be found there for a large number of false reports that are currently circulating. You should also be particularly careful with - alleged - eyewitness reports: "The brother of my hairdresser is a doctor in Italy and says ..." - that's how rumors start very often at the moment.

What types of disinformation need to be distinguished?

Bader: Currently I would differentiate between three types. On the one hand, there are large conspiracy theories that are similar to the classic conspiracy theories: The Chinese, the Jews, the Americans or even some internet entrepreneurs have brought the virus into the world. A new hot spot could develop in circles with an affinity for naturopathy. Of course, this does not apply to everyone. There are very many very sensible homeopathic doctors who simply support conventional medicine. But there are also individual actors who, because of their distance from conventional medicine, make strange claims: Corona is nothing but a normal flu. You only get really sick through fear. Of course, there have been fake studies in the past, for example on the subject of vaccinations, but I currently have the impression that fake news in this area is increasing relatively strongly.

And then there are WhatsApp rumors: Obscure tips on how to stay healthy, rumors about evil gangs taking advantage of the situation, fake eyewitness reports of all kinds.

Is the impression correct that this disinformation about the coronavirus is spreading particularly quickly and intensively? What are the possible reasons for this?

Bader: Assessing dangers is a basic human need. And this is currently presenting us with huge challenges: a virus that we cannot see is massively changing our everyday life. Everyone is on the phone, always trying to find out the latest and to pass on information. That is normal. But then you quickly share a rumor. Checking information before passing it on is unfortunately not a basic human need, but a cultural technique that we should use urgently in such situations.

Which technical mechanisms favor this dissemination? What findings does the DORIAN project provide on this?

Steinebach: The DORIAN project, which was completed last year, showed that decentralized information services such as social networks are particularly suitable for spreading disinformation. Communication can take place quickly and unfiltered, the texts are short and therefore require little effort. The dissemination then takes place via established networks or links between the members as soon as disinformation can convince even one member in this network.

Why is it that disinformation generally spreads so well?

Steinebach: Of course, I can only answer that somewhat more reliably from a technical perspective. Here I see the very fast networks that enable real-time dissemination as a strong multiplier. There is hardly any effort and no costs for the disseminators. If the users are already sitting expectantly at their end devices and want to supply their own network with information, then the information spreads almost without delay. Anyone who might otherwise have read and processed their messages after work may now be sitting in the home office and responding much faster to the messages.

What is your advice to people about how to deal with such messages?

Bader: Never share anything that hasn't been checked again. What cannot be checked, simply cannot be shared.

Steinebach: I think users also have very different attitudes towards the news. With some campaigns I have the feeling that some people pass them on more as bizarre entertainment, others then receive them and consider them to have been checked by the sender, i.e. take over the message in combination with the reputation of the sender. Then a joke can quickly turn into uncertainty. I would therefore advise you to think carefully about how the message will be received by the recipients.

What should I do if I receive a questionable message?

Bader: Googling the message and - if you come across a correction - then share it. At the same time, you shouldn't expose the sender, but show understanding that something like this can currently happen and then kindly point out how you can prevent it so that you do not share fake news.

What should I do with the person I received the message from?

Steinebach: That depends on the relationship you have with her. You can simply ask close acquaintances and friends whether they have checked the message or how they rate it personally. In the case of distant friends or strangers, I would ignore the messages or check them as critically as if I had kept myself completely anonymous.

What dangers do you see from the spread of such disinformation on a social level?

Bader: Incorrect information can be dangerous in the current situation. Either because they panic and lead to wrong behavior, or because they give people a false sense of security. In addition, any misinformation increases the already great uncertainty.

Steinebach: Since alleged official authorities are often given as evidence in disinformation, ie “University X has recognized” or “Authority Y in country Z has decided” and the content then turns out to be incorrect, trust in these institutions can be through no fault of their own be affected. In the future, this can be a problem if valuable insights actually come from there.

How can the problem be solved on a large scale?

Bader: Network operators also have to take on more responsibility. Currently they are partially doing this, but more should happen here. Otherwise, only education helps and everyone can contribute if he or she communicates accordingly in their own networks.

Steinebach: In my opinion, research is not yet ready to give a satisfactory answer here. Perhaps you have to work a lot more with infrastructures that make the authenticity of statements verifiable and that users can easily check. Then it becomes easier to differentiate between forwarded messages from relevant entities and personal opinions of users. But it can also be that users have to become even more aware that the boundaries between information, bad jokes and deliberate misleading are fluid in the relevant networks. And that, especially for questions relating to health, before changing behavior, switching to a second information channel such as news sites or radio provides a significant plus in reliability.