Judging disinformation and misinformation on Covid-19

What role do disinformation and misinformation play in our dealings with the virus? How dangerous are they and how do they spread via social media? What can science, what can legislation do to counter fake news in times of COVID-19? Konstanz media researcher Andreas Jungherr responds to these questions in an interview.
© Bild: edar/Pixabay

What role do disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories play in our dealings with Covid-19?

Covid-19 presents all of us with major challenges as far as dealing with information is concerned. Covid-19 affects us all directly and personally. At the same time, we all probably find it difficult to judge information on Covid-19 in terms of its factual content or quality. No least because the factual situation concerning Covid-19 is constantly changing. Accordingly, governments and science are continuously adjusting their forecasts and correcting their recommendations on courses of action. This in turn gives their opponents and sceptics the opportunity to sow doubt about their authority, competence and the effectiveness of their interventions.

At the same time, people must make partly far-reaching decisions for their own protection and that of others against a backdrop of great uncertainty. As a consequence, they search for information about the virus and the effectiveness of protective measures or are at least receptive when other people draw their attention to such information. In this situation, it’s important to be able to access high-quality information. At the same time, the incentives for various stakeholders to spread misinformation are great.

Originators of intentional misinformation have different motives. Probably the two most important ones in the case of Covid-19 are on the one hand economic motives: If a large number of people are searching for information about Covid-19, providers can lure visitors to their websites with sensational but false information and in so doing earn money via advertisements, the sale of would-be cures and gadgetry or the installation of malware. On the other hand, there are naturally also political motives: Various political players are using Covid-19 in the political competition. This can take the shape of exaggerating or trivializing the dangers the virus represents, attributing it to the wrong causes or the politicization of countermeasures.
At the same time, a lot of “honest” misinformation can be found. This is information which is published and spread on the basis of honest motives but which, however, transpires over the course of time to be false.

In the competition for attention with the state of knowledge assumed correct at a specific moment in time, disinformation and misinformation generally have the advantage that they are more sensational. Their authors use controversies, existing political divisions and emotions to attract attention. As a consequence, they potentially stand out more and spread faster.


Is this dangerous? If so, how?

Disinformation and misinformation can be especially dangerous at the present time if people base their behaviour in relation to Covid-19 on incorrect information. This can put individuals at risk if they take ineffective countermeasures or substances or in the worst case even ones that damage their health.
At the same time, misinformation can also endanger the effectiveness and legitimacy of collective measures, such as curfews. In this case, it would endanger society.

"Disinformation and misinformation can be especially dangerous at the present time if people base their behaviour in relation to COVID-19 on incorrect information.

Andreas Jungherr, media researcher at the University of Konstanz


What role do social media play in their dissemination?

First of all, it has to be said that in the first weeks and months of the coronavirus pandemic social media were one of the few sources where we could find detailed information about the nature, propagation and handling of the virus. There is still very good information about Covid-19 in social media, but now it’s very difficult to spot it among the mass of other information. Relying on established media providers is therefore meanwhile probably the better option. Unless, of course, you’ve built up your own set of competent and trustworthy social media sources. 

Is the coronavirus pandemic giving the spread of falsehoods via social media a particular boost? And to what extent are they perhaps even more dangerous now than before the pandemic?

Disinformation and misinformation always spread in social media in times of insecurity or political dispute. As I described before: Covid-19 is precisely such a case. A high level of attention from society means high potential gain for the originators of disinformation and that means: Supply increases.
At the same time, we’re dealing here with a situation where there is legitimate uncertainty about the underlying problem and corresponding measures. This means that today’s good practices can already be misinformation tomorrow. This heightened level of uncertainty makes it more difficult for individuals to judge the credibility of information and sources.
Especially people who have doubts about the media or state institutions anyway are drawn towards alternative sources of information. Here, the fact that disinformation and misinformation are directed against the mainstream, which the users of these sources have already identified as “opponents”, can then be particularly appealing. 
At the same time, this doesn’t mean, however, that social media are behind the dissemination of misinformation. On the one hand, we can discover a lot of information there which is not (yet) taken into consideration in the debate found in professional or institutional media and sources of information. On the other hand, some of the most influential propagators of doubt and misinformation are political players. The best example is, of course, Donald Trump in the USA. 

Video Interview with Andreas Jungherr


What trends are you observing in the way social media are dealing with Covid-19?

The platform operators seem to take the subject very seriously. They also appear to be far more willing to actively intervene than they typically are in the case of political disinformation or misinformation in election campaigns.

Which social media channels are the main propagators of fake news and conspiracy theories?

Because of their large number of users, Twitter and Facebook are naturally always to the forefront. At the same time, however, these platforms are making a tremendous effort to identify misinformation and stop it from spreading.
A dissemination channel which is probably just as important is the WhatsApp messenger service, since people can pass on information here to their immediate social network. We cannot, however, see from outside what information is being circulated, where it comes from or how much prominence it gains. However, we know from reports by independent fact-checkers that especially during the coronavirus crisis they’re receiving unusually high numbers of requests for the verification of information disseminated there.

Dr Andreas Jungherr is junior professor of social science data collection and analysis at the University of Konstanz and principal investigator in the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”. He is a specialist on the impacts of the internet and digital media on political communication and author of two books on how politics and research use the internet.

Which means can science use to successfully oppose the originators of fakes news and conspiracy theories in the first place?

In my view, the first question that scientists should ask themselves right now is whether they can really contribute something to this topic in public on the basis of their research and teaching activities. Only through our self-critical answer to this question can we scientists avoid making our own contribution to uncertainty and the flood of information.
There are, however, many examples for good science communication. In Germany, Christian Drosten, with his podcast on the NDR broadcasting service, is surely the scientist making the most visible and useful contribution at the moment. He’s a good example of how to communicate research results and processes to the broad and involved public. In my opinion, he succeeds particularly well in contextualizing the current state of knowledge and the underlying uncertainty of scientific work and evidence development. In so doing, he’s making an important contribution to the public debate.
At the same time, we can also see from the way the media handle his statements and the man himself the risks that stepping out in public and making yourself available as a discussion partner involve for scientists. Even very calm and responsible information communication and contextualization in public offer interested stakeholders an occasion for instrumentalization and politicization. Science and media must learn here to treat each other better and more considerately.

In times of crisis, legislators are often required to react to the special situation with new laws. What do you think about legal means of coercion against the propagation of fake news on Covid-19, as suggested, for example, by Boris Pistorius, Lower Saxony’s Minister for Internal Affairs?

I’d be very careful here. On the one hand, we’re lacking a reliable empirical base to gauge how widespread disinformation and misinformation in digital media really are, to what degree they are absorbed and spread and whether they are the basis for users to actually adjust their behaviour. It seems risky to me to roll out wide-ranging coercive measures on the basis of impressions that at present are solely anecdotal.
At the same time, however, politics should definitely examine whether a decline in the number of clients placing advertisements as a result of the crisis represents an additional threat to the media. The death of newspapers as an outcome of Covid-19 could have more far-reaching consequences than disinformation or misinformation in social media. State interventions and aid could therefore possible be more important here than the mostly symbolic fight against online disinformation and misinformation.

In a series of interviews, experts from the University of Konstanz from different departments and from its Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" provide information on current issues related to the spread of the coronavirus.


Paul Töbelmann

By Paul Töbelmann - 09.04.2020