“People Sharing Misinformation Generally Do Not Act in Bad Faith“

Whether in a Facebook post, in a chain letter, or in a YouTube video — there is a huge amount of fake information on the coronavirus circulating online, claiming that the virus is no more dangerous than the common flu or that home remedies like garlic protect you from an infection, for example. In our interview, Prof. Dr Tobias Rothmund, communication and media psychologist at the University of Jena explains why such myths are a problem and what you can do if your friends and relatives are among the ones sharing them.

Why is there so much false news surrounding the pandemic right now?

There is a high degree of insecurity among the population. But that is normal. Hardly anyone has ever experienced such a situation. People are afraid, looking for explanations, and still in denial about the current developments. When it comes to misinformation, it is less about whether it exists, but more about how many people believe and actively spread it.

Why do you think that is a problem?

It is very important that people don’t ‘fall’ for fake news on the corona crisis and, above all, that they don’t spread it themselves. In the current situation, fake news can easily trigger fear and panic. The more often a misinformation is spread, the more credible it seems. This can result in panic dynamics that can turn out to be disastrous for the individual and society as a whole, if people — based on misconceptions or misinformation — behave in a way that makes the virus spread even more. In addition, it is vital that we remain mentally healthy and stable. It would be wrong to panic. We can only overcome this crisis together—that is if as many people as possible behave as rationally as possible.

In which forms does misinformation crop up?

People share misinformation in social media and contribute to its spreading. In general, fake news appear in different forms. These depend on the technical environment of the respective platforms. For instance, there are chain letters that we mostly see in messenger apps like WhatsApp, which are passed on from one to another—like in a long chain. In social media, misinformation spreads just as easily. Here, people share links and make that misinformation available to their own friends, too.

How do I separate fact from fiction when it comes to news on the coronavirus?

In general, we need to distinguish between expert opinions, news, and rumours. Legitimate expert opinions are usually quite similar, because experts examine the same facts using the same logical or rational methods. An expert opinion contradicting many other expert opinions may be true in particular cases. However, this is rather unlikely and should be met with scepticism. All information has a source. You need to get to the bottom of the information and compare the source with other sources. It will most probably only take a few minutes online. Then it should be clear whether a piece of news is correct or a fake. News without a source is not reliable. Verifying rumours is most complicated. Here, the source is typically not known or hidden on purpose. In general, but especially in the current situation, we should avoid the spreading of rumours. Rumours with a spectacularly positive or negative content are especially problematic. They are usually not true, and yet, they are the ones that are shared most frequently. 

What can I do if friends or relatives suddenly start sharing misinformation?

First of all, it is important not to spread it any further. If it happens more often, you could try talking to them. One important reason behind people sharing misinformation is the assumption that the information might be correct and thus relevant for friends and family. It is sort of a well-meaning intent of helping their social environment. That doesn’t make it easy for the one receiving such a message to be critical. However, it is worth pointing out that the sharing of questionable information causes additional insecurities and fear. There is two types of “mistakes” that can be committed. One mistake is to not to take an information seriously or not having informed others. And there is the mistake of unsettling oneself and others even more through contradictory and wrong information.

In the last days, we have heard calls for making it punishable to share fake news that might unsettle the population in the corona crisis. What is your opinion on that?

I do not believe that this is the right approach. For one thing, even in times of crisis, we live in a country where freedom of speech applies. I do not believe that it will be helpful to forbid the spreading of rumours and make it a punishable act. People sharing misinformation generally do not act in bad faith. I think we should start with three other aspects. First, it is particularly important that political communication is transparent and trustworthy. If people get the impression that they are insufficiently informed, this would fuel conspiracy theories and the spread of rumours on a massive scale. Second, the platform operators should remove proven false news from platforms swiftly and relentlessly. Third, we must all remain calm, not disseminate news or rumours uncritically, and question the quality of information and facts in discussions.

I would like to conclude this interview with a personal question: Have you ever fallen for fake news, and if so, how did you become aware of it?

Yes, I have. I shared a tweet that allegedly came from Prince Charles. He had criticized a statement by Donald Trump. But it turned out to be a fake account. I figured it out quickly and deleted my tweet. Such a thing can easily happen, especially if I react quickly and the information addresses a concern, a wish or a conviction in me, which I find confirmed by the information. But you can practice to keep a critical eye in such situations. First of all, ask yourself whether the source and content of an item of news are credible. However, you shouldn’t judge the credibility of news by how plausible you find its content. Instead, you need to check if the source is real and credible, and if the news really comes from that source. Only then should you decide whether you want to share it or not.

Dieser Beitrag erschien zuerst auf der Webseite der Universität Jena.