Published 31-03-2020
| Article appears in April Issue

Beware of coronavirus fake news warns Monash expert


Now is a time when anxious people across the world will take to the internet looking for answers about coronavirus – but sometimes the “cure” they find can be worse than the disease. That’s the message of Dr Carlo Kopp, a Monash University lecturer in computing science and expert in the modelling of deceptions in social and biological systems.

Unfortunately unscrupulous fake news peddlers are taking advantage of the frantic search for information on coronavirus, as people confront an existential uncertainty while having unprecedented time on their hands at home.

“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,” Dr Carlo Kopp said.

"The problem is compounded by increasing numbers of nations going into lockdown, with anxious citizens sitting at home spending time browsing the web or engaging on social media while off work. This has the potential to become the proverbial 'perfect storm' of fake news propagation.”

Social media is already abuzz with all kinds of conspiracy theories, scams and bogus science, with one study identifying more than 30 Facebook groups peddling fake news and half truths. A particular risk is information discouraging people with symptoms from getting treatment. The fake news may at times come from hostile states, but it can also come from more mundane and familiar sources - cranks or shonks hocking phony treatments.

“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 affected on social media platforms already emulate epidemic control measures, such as tracking down fake news producers and denying them access.

“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.”