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Fake News in 2020

Climate change and Covid-19 are among various online conversations plagued with misinformation

REPORTFake News in 2020
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Fake news, misinformation, and disinformation will be one of the biggest threats to the world in the next ten years, according to the World Economic Forum.

One of the reasons it’s such a big problem, and one that’s persisted in public consciousness for so long, is that it’s so hard to define. Of course, there are various definitions we can describe:

  • Fake news: A pretty informal term used to describe hoax information spread by the media and across social.
  • Misinformation: Sharing incorrect information without knowing it’s incorrect.
  • Disinformation: Deliberately sharing incorrect information with intent.

But what is obviously inauthentic for one could seem perfectly reasonable to another. Before technical solutions to identifying and neutralizing inauthentic content can be found, there is a difficult philosophical problem to be solved.

Meanwhile, it helps to look at the conditions that give rise to fake news. Social networks make it easy for unverified information to spread rapidly, while time-pressed journalists under pressure to create more and more content have been documented to fall prey to fake accounts, sometimes using their posts as genuine vox pops.

Perhaps what makes the problem so urgent is that fake news can be so sticky. As Dr Delia Dumitrescu describes in our 2020 Fake News Week interview:

“A particular piece of information, no matter how fake it is, can become familiar. If it’s familiar it gets into the fluency of thinking. It becomes intuitive and easy to retrieve. Information that’s easily retrievable is given more value... Familiarity is a cue. The brain takes it as a cue that this is valuable.”
— Dr Delia Dumitrescu, Fake News Week Interview: Dr Delia Dumitrescu & Andrew Ross, MA, on Misinformation, Social, and the Media (Brandwatch blog, 30 March 2020)

And it’s also so hard to put the cat back in the bag. In Fake News Week 2019, we interviewed Ania Korsunska, who said: “Recent research has shown that misinformation spreads far and wide, and corrections kind of limp behind, but never catch up. People never spread corrections – they’re never going to go as far as the original story.”

As we’ll see, fake news, misinformation and disinformation can be created, distributed, and reinforced through well-meaning sharing so quickly that those wishing to tackle it cannot afford to wait. The results can be incredibly damaging, not matter how you look at it.

This report

Brandwatch is not in the business of identifying what is true and what is not true, but our technology can track the spread of trends, messages and media as it travels across public social media channels and websites.

In this report, we’ll be diving into various examples of questionable messages and how we’ve tracked them online in 2020. We’ll cover:

  • Trends in climate change messaging: Illustrating how divisive material continues to thrive in 2020
  • Conspiracies and cures for Covid-19: Examining the unique situation we find ourselves in, and how mis- and disinformation are proliferating online
  • Practical tips for spotting fake news, based on the examples we’ve seen

And, while we’re here, we’d encourage you to join us for our webinar for a look at how brands can reframe their understanding of misinformation to better understand and tackle it.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, you might remember there was another global crisis we were all talking about.

It’s a topic that’s incredibly divisive, and one that generates an enormous amount of content.

We thought we’d look into articles shared around ‘climate change’ and ‘climate crisis’ to understand both the scale and the kinds of content that do well.

As you can see above, in the last year there have been hundreds of millions of engagements with ‘climate change’ and ‘climate crisis’ content. ‘Climate change’ sees more than ‘climate crisis’.

Diving deeper into ‘climate change’ conversation, we found something pretty shocking.

The climate change article with the most engagements over the last year comes from a well-known conspiracy theory site called Natural News.

The article was engaged with 4.2 million times and was shared more than any of the others on our list on Facebook.

While the site has been condemned as a purveyor of fake news for a long time (Forbes 2016, Fast Company 2019, The Daily Beast 2020), it’s still able to generate plenty of interest across social media.

This is demonstrative of a few themes we introduced up top.

  1. It’s hard to discredit fake news. While many respected sources have called out Natural News, they continue to thrive at spreading their articles.
  2. Networks and echo chambers can be hard to infiltrate. Once a group of people with a shared interest or narrative is in place, infiltrating that network with news that doesn’t fit with their beliefs is going to be both difficult and potentially met with hostility. An article doesn’t get 4.2 million engagements without a pretty serious network of promoters.

Conspiracies and cures for Covid-19

Just over one hundred years ago, the Spanish flu infected huge swathes of the global population. As Hannah Mawdsley writes in Wellcome Collection: “the pathogen responsible for Spanish flu remained a mystery and, with little helpful guidance available from the medical community, the world was ripe for the proliferation of ‘fake news’.”

It seems that while our medical knowledge has advanced, the problem of fake news during public health disasters continues to be an issue.

Conspiracies and cures

As you can see below, there are some pretty whacky theories doing the rounds on social that have generated tens of thousands of mentions.

Let’s zoom in on one of the above theories to help illustrate how fake news spreads in a modern-day pandemic.

Bat soup

While studying conversation around Covid-19 using Consumer Research, our AI assistant Iris picked up on a strong drive in conversation around a theory relating to ‘bat soup’.

People and news outlets including the Daily Mail were sharing a video of a woman eating a bat and some bat soup. Some claimed that the video was filmed at a Wuhan restaurant. The result was a jumbled theory that revolved around Covid-19 originating in people eating bats, and it was shared a lot on social media.

But the video was not filmed in Wuhan, nor was it filmed in 2020 (it was actually from 2016). And while bats have been identified as a potential carrier of the virus, the link here seems pretty tangental. According to BuzzSumo, the media gained 849K engagements (interactions) from content that mentioned bat soup and Covid-19.

News fatigue

Our daily Covid-19 data bulletin team took a look at news fatigue in relation to Coronavirus. Here’s a snippet from the newsletter:

“We used BuzzSumo to find out how many Covid-19-related articles have been published each day this month, and the number of social engagements and shares they got. With that data, we worked out the average engagement per article per day.

“We then looked at how many people were talking about the virus daily. To track how they’ve changed in comparison to one another, we indexed them with their values for March 1 set at 100.

“Published articles peaked last week, with March 18 seeing 137k of them alone. In comparison, the number of people discussing Covid-19 has dropped on average by 2.5% a day. Meanwhile, average engements have stayed fairly steady, but it looks like this may be falling too.

“Is the constant barrage of news too much for people, causing them to lose interest?

“We found 14k people talking about turning off the news or being fed up with it. This peaked on March 20 with 500 mentions. In comparison, 425 expressed the same sentiment the day of the Orlando nightclub shootings in the US.

There’s only so much gloomy news people can put up with. But at a time when fake news can easily spread and official advice is often updated, this is a worrying trend.”

Dark social

Something we should point out here is that fake news is not always easy to track across social, since so much sharing goes on in private messages (e.g. Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp). For good reasons, we are not able to track these shares, but you’ll certainly find anecdotal evidence of it online if you’ve not received something yourself.

I've been sent a few private messages with tips on how to stay safe from Covid-19. But the information is not first hand or from a trusted source, and it doesn't line up with official guidance.
— Gemma Joyce, Content Manager at Brandwatch

Practical tips for spotting fake news

As we outlined in the introduction, fake news is hard to define – things get very philosophical very quickly.

But in our everyday lives, how can we be more critical of the information we’re exposed to? How can we investigate when we think something seems a bit fishy?

Here are some tips:

In summary

As you can see from the examples above, fake news is alive and well in 2020. It’s a serious threat – while concerns around democracy and fake news are well documented, we are currently living through a public health crisis which could be made worse by misleading or false messages shared online.

But there is some hope on the horizon. Social networks are displaying messaging from official bodies prominently on news feeds, so even those turning away from the news can access the advice they need to know about.

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