The Danger Of Mainstream Media Infections With Viral And Fake Information

Matthew Gagne
4 min read
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Information is freedom, but false information can be deadly. The free press is one of the prime disseminators of information in the US, and its role is even more important in the time of ingrained social media and the global crisis of the coronavirus. While the world reels from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, mainstream media, from national news outlets to local publications, are vulnerable to infection from viral, false information.

Social media is a breeding ground for viral, and in the time of the coronavirus, potentially deadly false information. In the time of the internet and social media, false information and memes propagate like a deadly pandemic. Local newspapers, TV stations, radio, and podcasts need to be extra vigilant to wash their news thoroughly (with soap) to make sure they don’t spread fake information.

In France, a viral post suggested that snorting cocaine kills the coronavirus. Hopefully, most people would not take that seriously and rush out to buy a bunch of cocaine, pile it on their desk, and tell the coronavirus to “Say hello to my little friend.” But the post was spread widely enough – and taken seriously enough – that the French health ministry had to issue a statement that cocaine does not actually kill the virus.

Imagine if an article was published about someone who had recovered from COVID-19 and stated they had snorted cocaine daily as part of their home treatment. For one, a journalist should probably not put that in the article. And if they did, they should clarify, distinctly, that cocaine does not kill the virus. It’s the combined responsibility of the journalist and the publication’s editor to ensure that snorting cocaine to kill the coronavirus does not get presented as truth.

Another viral post in the US had a bunch of “tips” to test and protect oneself from the coronavirus supposedly from a member of the Stanford Hospital Board. While not as extreme as the cocaine post, the tips included gurgling water and salt as a preventative measure and testing one’s lungs by holding your breath for 10 seconds. Stanford University issued a statement about the post, and multiple national media outlets covered, and corrected, the myths in the post.

Still, the post simmers and is currently being spread on blogs, social media, and has even infected mainstream media. For example, if an article quotes one of the false tips from a COVID-19 patient who has recovered, it’s the responsibility of the publication to not present it as fact.

Ideally, any publication of false information by any media outlet should only be to refute it. Quotes from sources that repeat any myth shouldn’t be published. Media consumers notoriously have short attention spans and may not fully absorb that the paragraph following a quote of fake information disputes that information.

Media consumers also do not necessarily have the training to cognitively question and verify information published by the media they ingest. If they see a post “from” Stanford, a name that inherently establishes credibility, they typically do not actually go to the Stanford website to check if it is valid. If the fake information is published as truth by another source they trust – a local newspaper, for example – it further ingrains the infection of fake information into their psyche.

Locally, the post surfaced on Nextdoor, the social media platform to connect neighbors and neighborhoods. Fortunately, the post was disputed in comments and flagged by users enough that it was deleted. Some social media and blogs can be self-correcting by users, although there may be lingering damage from the initial post.

More mainstream media – local newspapers, TV news, radio, etc. – must rely more on the firewall of their journalists and editors. Feedback does happen through letters to the editor or contacting the journalist/editor directly. But often that’s too late. While some may read/watch/listen to a retraction of previously published false information, many will not see it, potentially perpetuating the myth. And sometimes, there’s no response from the publication at all.

While media outlets inherently should be vigilant in publishing accurate information, it’s extremely important now. It’s important during the crisis to not pack the news with “if it bleeds, it leads” stories. While those are important, stories of hope, recovery, and goodwill can bolster communities under stress. Regardless of the angle, journalists should check every piece of information from their sources. To not do so is irresponsible journalism in normal times. In the time of the coronavirus, it can be deadly.
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