Chrysalis Wright, PhD
University of Central Florida
In the past several months, our society has been shifted and our usual way of life has been disrupted as a result of COVID-19 in the United States. The first confirmed case was in January of this year, with an increase in reported cases each day since. A global pandemic was announced in early March and at the time of this writing, there are over 738,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. with almost every state and territory impacted. Considering the very nature of the current events, it is disappointing and disheartening to see fake news related to COVID-19 circulated on social media. It is also disappointing to see some health and governmental officials as well as hard news sources using a political agenda or bias in their reporting or even using language that can promote prejudice and stereotyping.
Anyone with a social media account has no doubt seen at least one example of fake news related to COVID-19. From the meaning of COVID-19 to it being predicted by Nostradamus or “The Simpsons,” fake news about COVID-19 is spreading fast alongside the virus. What we think of fake news is usually spread via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Instagram among others (Mihailidis & Viotty, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2018). Fake news is hard for some people to identify and can create confusion about what is true, doubt about accurate information, reliance on falsehoods, and is continuously shared among members of the public unknowingly (Jang & Kim, 2018; Rapp & Salovich, 2018). With the rapid dissemination of fake news through social media, users are bombarded with false information on a regular basis. Usually, what people “learn” from fake news is persistent and long-lasting (Jeong-woo et al., 2019). It can also have more of an impact on consumers than information from hard news sources, likely because of its sensational nature and shock value (Wright, Brinklow-Vaughn, Johannes, & Rodriguez, in revision).
In addition to fake news related to COVID-19 being distributed almost daily, the handling of the virus by some health and government officials and the hard news biased reporting of the pandemic makes matters worse. Calling the pandemic an “impeachment scam” or “hoax” (Bond, 2020) suggests a political agenda in reporting. Bias, such as this, has been documented in previous research (de Zuniga et al., 2012; Figenshou & Thorbjornsrud, 2015). Referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” prompted the American Psychological Association to call for destigmatizing coronavirus at the end of March (APA, 2020) and the FBI to issue a warning about an increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans (ABC News, March 27, 2020).
Both of these were well warranted considering the stark increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans since the emergence of COVID-19 in the U.S. (Kelley, 2020; Reinstein, 2020). Since January there have been more than 44 reported incidents of Asian Americans being threatened or harassed (Anti-Defamation League, 2020). Examples of this include an Asian American woman being spit on and yelled at while walking to the gym (Tavernise & Oppel, 2020) and a 51-year-old Asian American woman being attacked while taking a city bus in the Bronx (Madani, 2020). These are just a two examples; there have been many others.
While it is clear that the way various forms of media cover the current global pandemic is having a negative impact on prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, and increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans (Anti-Defamation League, 2020; Kelley, 2020; Reinstein, 2020), what is not clear is how to remedy this problem now before it gets worse. It seems that the best course of action is not only educating consumers on how to decipher the information they are bombarded with but to also encourage health and government officials as well as journalists from hard news sources to report facts and promote ethical journalism. For misinformation that is shared on social media, we each need to correct myths, rumors and false information, and stereotypes when we encounter them but make sure that we respond in kindness rather than judgement.
Wright, C. L., Brinklow-Vaughn, R., Johannes, K., & Rodriguez. (in revision). Media portrayals of immigration and refugees in hard and fake news and their impact on consumer attitudes. The Howard Journal of Communications.