Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Mediating Covid – The Evolution of Fake News in the Context of Coronavirus: First Explorative Insights into the Emergence and Spread of Fake News in Austria
Daniela Wetzelhütter and Sebastian Martin, Faculty for Medical Engineering and Applied Social Sciences, University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, Linz, Austria
The Coronavirus crisis unfolded with tremendous speed, especially in terms of its physical effects (illness), psychological effects (fear), and social effects (distancing). At about the same time, Coronavirus media hype spread around the world. Through both traditional and social media, people were rapidly informed about the range of the virus, the associated dangers, and possible protective measures. Simultaneously, a fake news “infodemic” was observed on a global scale.
On 10 March, the Austrian Press Council rapidly reacted as the number of infected people begun to rise more quickly, as reported by the Federal Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection. The Council emphasized that reporting on Coronavirus should be as factual and objective as possible, and readers should not be stirred up by unfounded fears or hopes. However, the Council added, it is the task of the news media to draw attention to existing risks and dangers. It certainly helps if the news media provide factual clarification, but this might not prevent uncertainty. Such uncertainty can be fuelled above all by rumours.
Looking back, it can be emphasized that such rumours circulated with tremendous speed on social media – e.g. rumours of a total curfew as reported by MIMIKAMA, among others. One reaction immediately seen among the general population was hoarding. Initially, the government denied that any such curfew would be imposed in Austria. However, a few days later, the Federal Ministry for Social Affairs announced that lockdown restrictions were being imposed, with people advised to stay at home. Next, a (later withdrawn) government order known as the “Easter decree” caused confusion, as it contradicted the communicated lockdown restrictions.
Another example of the steps taken concerns protective masks. They were not initially considered, as they would not provide passive protection, as the Chancellor explained in an interview. Later, the Federal Chancellery made them mandatory for certain occasions. All of this happened with full news media coverage. This created insecurity, or at least uncertainty, which is naturally also reflected on social media, but not always in as factual and objective a manner as possible.
The fact is that politicians acted for all the media to see (almost 50 press conferences from 27 February to 10 April) and – understandably, given the circumstances – made mistakes for all the media to see. Consequently, they revised some decisions, also for all the media to see. It is undisputed that the Coronavirus crisis proved to be the perfect breeding ground for fake news. The Austrian Parliament recognised the danger, and brought in a “digital crisis committee” to detect and correct this type of misinformation about coronavirus. Within one week, 150 items of fake news had been detected by the committee.
In view of this tremendous amount of circulating fake news, the following research question arises:
How can the emergence and spread of fake news be explained in times of Coronavirus?
Using examples from the news media coverage, the present explorative article attempts to outline some circumstances and possible factors that might drive the emergence and spread of incorrect information in Austria.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but the term has only found its way into the German language in recent years . According to Tandoc, Lim and Ling , six different types of fake news can be distinguished: news parody, news satire, fabrication, manipulation, advertising and propaganda.
Fake news seems to have two goals: wide distribution and the deception of the audience , although the latter may be true to different extents for different types of fake news (see above). It can be assumed that events which cause uncertainty on a large scale due to reports in the news media are a good breeding ground for fake news. This is probably because – as Stanford News reports – insecurity leads to misinformation being believed. Social media  enables fake news to spread far. One explanation for the successful spreading of fake news via social media might be that information “coming from a trusted source is more likely to be interacted with” .
These arguments seem to be particularly true of fake news about the Coronavirus crisis as, understandably, there is an especially high demand for information among the population in times of crisis. The news media responded to this demand and reported frequently about the virus.
In fact, the news media paid considerable attention to the key players responsible for “managing” the coronavirus crisis (e.g. in the government), experts who advised the key players (e.g. health facilities, universities), and people who were endangered or affected by Coronavirus. Of course, the actions of these stakeholders were not without mistakes. Inconsistent and incorrect actions in full view of the media may have unsettled the population. This promoted uncertainty about the correctness of the news – a perfect breeding ground for fake news and its spread. The consequences are irrational reactions by the population, such as the hoarding described above. WhatsApp took steps to actively prevent the spread of fake news. In addition, Facebook worked to stop misinformation and false news, as did Twitter, Instagram, and other online channels.
However, it is important to note that both traditional and social media are used as a source of information for people in the low-risk and the high-risk groups (defined by 9 main indicators of mostly chronic diseases, cancer, and adiposities). It is also apparent that people in the high-risk group (more often than others) keep themselves informed via traditional news media. This provides the opportunity to correct misinformation.
Based on this, the following illustration visualizes some initial theoretical assumptions regarding the occurrence and spread of fake news in the context of Coronavirus.
Based on the theoretical considerations outlined above, we have traced the evolution of fake news during the Coronavirus crisis based on three examples. These examples were chosen because they had a lot of coverage in the news media, and they relate to different time periods beginning in February 2020 (Ibuprofen) and continuing in March (curfew) and April (protective masks).
It can be assumed that all three examples are rooted in the current media coverage (see Table 1). The contents are nevertheless invented, and the motives behind them are unclear. They can thus only be identified as the types mentioned at the beginning to a limited extent.
Table 1: Evolution of three examples of fake news during the coronavirus crisis
However, fake news is not limited to one country. The example of Ibuprofen (saying that a doctor was warning against using Ibuprofen) makes this clear, as the examples show below:
Via WhatsApp and Facebook, fake news is spread within a very short time. As an example, a fake message about Coronavirus was published in the name of an Austrian doctor. The first post was shared 185 times. Recipients of the post continued to spread it. On 18th March, the doctor and two newspapers responded, describing this posting as “fake news”. However, the information had already circulated on social media.
Based on our preliminary theoretical considerations on the evolution and spread of fake news about Coronavirus, we have outlined empirically, using three examples, how fake news can be at least partially “home-made”. In this context, "home-made" means that fake news items are based in current, real reporting – namely, reporting that reveals mistakes (e.g. by key actors). Social media are particularly suitable for the dissemination of fake news, since the news items are conveyed by trustworthy people (e.g. friends) and can spread exponentially (similarly to Coronavirus). The empirical results agree well with the assumptions outlined above, but also show that the model can be extended (for example, to include the motive for the fake news).
Moreover, based on the explanations indicated above, it seems that fake news about Coronavirus might be predictable. This is because the traditional media can contribute to the creation of fake news. Therefore, to recapitulate, from our point of view, it is important that potential items of fake news are slowed down or even prevented by the media before they emerge. This means that the media must take more responsibility. From now on, the traditional media should use their potential to prevent the evolution of incorrect information. How this might work is currently still uncertain; but for the time being, media monitoring (similar to the path roughly described here) could help. However, more research is needed to achieve this.
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 Tandoc, E. C., Lim, Z. W., & Ling, R. (2018). Defining “Fake News”. Digital Journalism, 6(2), 137-153.
 Rini, R. (2017). Fake News and Partisan Epistemology. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 27(2), E-43-E-64.
 Shu, K., Sliva, A., Wang, S., Tang, J., & Liu, H. (2017, August 7). Fake News Detection on Social Media: A Data Mining Perspective. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/pdf/1708.01967v3
 Buchanan, T., & Benson, V. (2019). Spreading Disinformation on Facebook: Do Trust in Message Source, Risk Propensity, or Personality Affect the Organic Reach of “Fake News”? Social Media+Society, 5(4), 1-9.
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