Fake news fuels the fire of fear

In an age of revolutionized communication, the truth is drowning in a sea of misinformation. The Internet, arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history, collects the sum of humanity’s knowledge and places it at our convenience. It’s reinvented the ways we interact with one another: any piece of news can be delivered from one person to countless others in milliseconds. Our lifestyles in the twenty-first century are largely digital; much of our exposure to the outside world is dictated by what appears in our Twitter feeds. Hence, just as humankind’s intelligence and resourcefulness are put on display by the Internet, a spotlight is shone on our vices. Paranoia is given a platform. Falsehoods go viral, spreading like disease. Though the term has been somewhat marred by certain individuals’ adoption, ‘fake news’ has infiltrated our digital environment – and through no fault but our own. Society’s anxieties and irresponsibility cause the creation and spread of misinformation, seeping out of the conspiracy theory corners of the web and onto our Facebook pages. In desperate times of widespread panic – like the culture-consuming coronavirus crisis – sharing fake news online can have real consequences. 

In late February, a post circulated social media featuring a glaringly fabricated news article about a supposed COVID-19 outbreak in Western New York. “Buffalo New York,” the post read, “is now on high alert due to confirmed Coronavirus at ECMC hospital on 462 Grider street. Mayor Byron Brown is now releasing statement telling people from the city of buffalo to evacuate due to Coronavirus outbreak in buffalo.” The mayor, fresh off the name-drop, took to Instagram to soothe Buffalonians’ nerves, proclaiming the article a scam. Considering the impeccable grammar, it seems obvious that there wasn’t an ounce of truth to the post. Yet, it still spread like wildfire prior to the mayor’s intervention. People screenshotted and shared it with their online peers – because they were afraid. More misinformation sprouted from our reliably unreliable leader Donald Trump, with the president proclaiming the coronavirus a “hoax” perpetuated by the Democrats at a campaign rally on February 28. Almost exactly two weeks later, Trump declared a national emergency. After a wave of closings and cancellations, another paranoid post reached prominence online, claiming that governments “develop and use viruses to scare the public… Mass panic, hysteria, complete control…over a virus, one that the survival rates are even extremely high.” ‘Cures’ for the virus, none of which were scientifically verifiable, permeated the web, including the consumption of garlic, bleach, and cocaine (in no particular order.) Televangelist Jim Bakker and far-right media figure Alex Jones both found themselves in legal trouble for peddling fake corona-curing potions online. These phenomena seem absurd. Who in the right mind would proliferate such blatant and dangerous falsehoods?

The culprit might be you. Throughout our extended experiment with social media, online society has developed a ‘share’ culture that’s not always as responsible as it should be. We take advantage of the convenience of content-sharing every day, whether it’s a breaking story, a favorite recipe, or a new song. It’s our way of connecting with the world – projecting our interests and passions to an enormous online community. However, not everything we see online is one hundred percent truthful. The Internet has provided an easy medium for malicious users to spread lies – sometimes for profit, like Alex Jones, sometimes for political gain, like Vladimir Putin, and sometimes just to wreak havoc. If we’re not careful, we share it like anything else. When something fits our political narrative, soothes our fears, or otherwise catches our eye, many users feel the urge to share with those around them. Thus, from its birth, fake news has the potential to multiply and circulate among the populace – like an infectious disease. Take it from Chris Wetherell, the developer who pioneered Twitter’s retweet button. “We might have just handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon,” he regretfully recounted. Throw panic and paranoia into the online mix, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. When the news serves us the notion that our wellbeing is in peril, we desperately search for escape; we need someone to tell us there’s a way out. For some during the coronavirus pandemic, that might mean subscribing to scientifically barren miracle cures and serums. Other times, our hero complex shines and we share an urgent false warning from an unnamed outlet to protect the lesser informed. Alas, how will humanity ever thank you? Many vocal social media users have become dangerously irresponsible in what they spread online, and repercussions can go beyond just cyberspace.

As reports of a new plague in China emerged months ago, a million paranoid minds immediately leaped to the ugliest of conclusions: racism. Seemingly overnight, a stigma surrounding Asians – not Chinese nationals, but Asians around the globe – manifested from thin air. People went to extraordinary lengths to implement this bigotry into their lives and habits: refusing to eat Chinese food, avoiding Uber drivers who appeared Asian, and worse. An uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes has been reported by human rights groups worldwide, with several instances of racially-motivated violence occurring in the United States and elsewhere. All of this stems from the baseless belief that every Asian had somehow contracted coronavirus, regardless of whether they’d ever stepped foot near China or any infected person. Much of this racist reaction originated from misinformation online. For instance, a video of an Asian woman dining on ‘bat soup’ trended on social media, shared by right-wing blogger Paul Joseph Watson and several media outlets. The clip perpetuated the narrative that Chinese people and their diets are supposedly dirty and uncivilized, fueling anti-Asian misconceptions. It was later found that the video was not filmed in China, but rather in Micronesia for a travel show three years ago. Content like this spread through the web, sustaining a fear-prompted prejudice against an entire race. Historically, we can draw parallels to times when bigotry emerged out of lies and misinformation during a period of panic: Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Gay people were ostracized and neglected during the AIDS epidemic. Muslims and Middle-Easterners faced hate crimes and surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11. Each example shares an all-too-common pattern: an essential lack of understanding. Confusion and fear clouded peoples’ consciences. In this new digital era, it’s easier than ever for us to become influenced in our decisions by fraudulent and malicious misinformation. By sharing fake news, we run the risk of bringing about a disaster like many times before. 

Several years ago, a foreign government took advantage of Americans’ fatal lack of online caution. As concluded by the CIA and numerous FBI investigations, Russian forces interfered in the presidential election of 2016 to undermine the campaign of Hillary Clinton. The meddling was conducted largely through coordinated social media operations which saw the creation of thousands of fake accounts to fabricate and spread misinformation in support of Donald Trump and promote Republican campaign events. Over the course of 2016, these ‘troll farms’ reached millions of Americans users, presumably having a widespread effect on the election’s ultimate outcome. Deceitful and misleading content created by these farms made its way to high-profile figures like Sean Hannity, Eric Trump, and Kellyanne Conway, who shared it with millions of social media followers who, in turn, shared it further. Though the two-year probe led by Robert Mueller found that there was insufficient evidence to tie Trump himself to the interference, it was inarguable that Russia played an unfair role in determining the victor of the 2016 election through the spread of fake news. The Russian government used American ‘share’ culture as a weapon to propagate falsehoods in its favor. With Donald Trump’s re-election effort in full swing, it’s widely expected that we might see history repeat itself – but this time around, we have the chance to learn from our mistakes. 

Our online sharing habits can dictate the health of the Internet’s discourse and beyond. In some cases, our desire to spread information via social media can be a virtue; we are more connected with the world than ever before. Social and political movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too have made impactful change through online action. A cultural diaspora like never before has taken place, with Internet users being exposed to customs that are otherwise foreign. Yet, some have corrupted this medium with lies and sensationalism. This is where share culture backfires. Well-intentioned social media users can unknowingly contribute to the spread of misinformation – and sometimes, they assist a malevolent force greater than themselves. We must face it: we’ve gotten too comfortable with clicking ‘send’ for whatever we please in any given moment. In times of crisis, like the one in which we currently find ourselves, fake news can fuel the infectious fire of fear and panic. Internet users need to learn how to spot what’s real and what’s not before giving it a digital platform. Even a quick Google search helps – when you see a post from a questionable source, do thirty seconds of research in a different tab to verify it before sharing. If everyone adopted this habit, our population would be more skeptical and grounded when it comes to online information. Save for a handful of coronavirus profiteers and Russian oligarchs, we’d all be better off. With maximal caution and minimal effort, we can cure the disease of fake news. 

Stay safe. Wash your hands.

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