Fake news can be fatal

| March 28, 2020

Late last week, CNN reported that Nigerian authorities warned the public against self-medicating with chloroquine, a 1940s anti-malaria medication. This came in the wake of multiple hospital admissions following overdoses resulting from attempts to prevent infection with the SARS CoV 2 virus.

The cause was a WhatsApp message reported by AFP to be spreading across the country two weeks ago, advocating the use of chloroquine in unsafe doses to prevent COVID-19. Chloroquine is currently being used experimentally, and in trials, to determine its viability as a COVID-19 treatment, and if viable, find suitable treatment protocols.

This is but one of a multitude of COVID-19 pandemic fake news examples that endanger human life.

The chloroquine example is a good illustration of the problem showing all three elements of fake news: disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation. A false claim being propagated by a hidden channel, the encrypted WhatApp service; a rebuttal in AFP that suggests the medication may not work rather than explaining that it might work, but in a tested dosage under medical supervision; and, finally, CNN connecting the incident with US President Trump’s public support for trialling the medication, despite his statements being made at least a week after the fake news message was spread in Nigeria.

Misuse of chloroquine can indeed kill – this week, a man died in Arizona following self-medication to prevent COVID-19, using a chloroquine phosphate product used to protect fish from parasites.

Australia hit by fake narratives

Australia has seen a large number of COVID-19 fake news narratives spread via social media, email, encrypted messenger services, and, in some instances, careless journalists in mass media. Since all of these communication channels have global reach, the public is exposed to false narratives of both domestic and foreign origin. The problem is now compounded by some nation state actors trying to incite fear and uncertainty, by creating and spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

With lockdowns being implemented globally to slow the spread of the pathogen, billions of people are now sitting at home, and a great many spending most of their time on social media, as they cannot work from home. Anxiety over the pandemic and future employment is now a genuine global problem. Hundreds of millions of anxious social media users and a daily worldwide deluge of fake news are a dangerous mix that creates conditions for a “perfect storm” of fake news propagation.

The problem of social media users spreading dubious or false reports on impulse is well known, and the failure of a majority of social media and web users to check the veracity of a report or document before believing it or sharing it has also been thoroughly researched. Younger audiences appear far more susceptible than adults, as the now famous 2016 Stanford study found.

Unfortunately, gullibility during the COVID-19 pandemic is potentially lethal, endangering not only the gullible or irresponsible individual.

In February, British epidemiologist Adam Kucharski correctly observed that fake news propagates in a manner similar to biological pathogens.

Empirical studies over the past decade have shown that message spreading in social media often exactly fits mathematical models originally developed for modelling the spread of biological pathogens. A study this author worked on showed that even in an agent-based simulation of fake news spread, spreading behaviour produced an unexpectedly accurate fit to a standard epidemiological spreading model.

There’s one big difference here, as a person infected with a biological pathogen might on average infect another five people, and this might take several days to happen.

When fake news is spread in social media, the “digital pathogen” can be spread to millions of people across a social media platform in almost as little time as it takes to read the message and hit the “share” button.

If a mass-media platform spreads a fake news story, the numbers can be as large as hundreds of millions.

Biological and digital pandemics

The fake news deluge we now see fits any reasonable definition of a pandemic, and if enough fake news consumers act upon the false beliefs or uncertainties being spread, it has the potential to be just as lethal, as the chloroquine example shows.

The similarities between biological and digital pandemics don’t end with identical spreading behaviours.

A major problem observed in the COVID-19 pandemic is what epidemiologists term “cryptic transmission”, where the pathogen is being quietly spread by asymptomatic patients. As no cases end up being detected, they can’t be isolated to protect others. We observe a similar problem with encrypted messenger tools such as WhatsApp, WickrMe and Telegram, which have become covert channels for the spread of fake news.

The popularity of encrypted messenger tools is precisely because they frustrate intrusive surveillance by governments and platform providers, but this also frustrates provider efforts to locate and delete fake news messages.

Persistent spreading of pathogens by asymptomatic patients was first popularised by the tragic case of “Typhoid Mary”, who spent much of her life in quarantine. In social or mass media, it’s not uncommon that an individual who becomes convinced a falsehood is true will cling to that false belief despite contrary evidence, and continue to spread it.

Defeating the COVID-19 fake news pandemic will present many of the same challenges now confronted in dealing with the biological pandemic, such as wilful civil disobedience. Many current measures being effected on social media platforms already emulate epidemic control measures, such as tracking down fake news producers and denying them access.

Immunisation of social media and web users against fake news remains an unsolved problem, as so many people insist on believing what they want to believe rather than fact-checking and rejecting nonsense.

Unlike biological pandemics, where immunisation is highly effective once a vaccine is found, immunisation of social media and web users against fake news remains an unsolved problem, as so many people insist on believing what they want to believe rather than fact-checking and rejecting nonsense. Quarantining habitual fake news spreaders by throwing them off social media may be the only practical short-term option.

Until a concerted global effort is made to understand and solve the problem of fake news consumption and spreading, it will continue to put human life at risk. We should never underestimate how dangerous fake news can be.

This article was published by Lens.