I have been amazed at how quickly the “5G technology is spreading COVID-19” fake news has spread and now scaled across different countries in the world (for the record, it doesn’t). It is not just that it is an emotional narrative that people can relate with and it confirms their bias, it seems like even in countries where it wasn’t there before, it somehow managed to find a target audience that further went on to spread it even further.

This has resulted in real-life impact with petitions being signed to ask governments to halt deployment of 5G as well as, in some countries, 5G masts being physically vandalized as part of the protest that 5G technology somehow is spreading COVID-19 around the world.

However, apart from social media, how did this fake news narrative spread and scale so quickly that governments, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), and other organizations (including telecommunications companies) were forced to, this week, issue statements to refute it?

Around 1856 and 1857, it is widely reported that a 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess in South Africa, Nongqawuse, reported back to her community that she had seen her ancestors who had told her to order everyone to kill their cattle and destroy their crops and in the aftermath, they would be rewarded with more crops and cattle. Unfortunately, the promised reward from her prophecy never materialized. Thousands died of hunger. Like any modern-day fake news story, the tale of Nongqawuse has truths to it but many versions. Interestingly, it is the fact that she claimed to have "seen" ancestors instead of them coming to her in a vision (as it is known-to-be in Xhosa culture) that makes one wonder if Nongqawuse wasn't perhaps a classic case of someone peddling fake news. We will never know, but the actions that followed her "prophecy" were devastating. 📷 Nongqawuse (Right) and Nonkosi (Left)

One of the most effective methods that I know is used to quickly spread fake news, and I sometimes forget about, is through legitimate fact-checking services. I usually forget this and someone we work with on some projects, James Patrick, always reminds me about it. I have been guilty of unintentionally, just like fact-checking websites, helping spread fake news by trying to prove it is false.

Sounds weird, right?

How is it possible to help spread fake news when you are proving that it is false?

Allow me to explain.

“‘5G Causes Coronavirus’ is the perfect example of how well-intended fact-checking takes a small, nonsensical piece of disinformation and amplifies it to the point of international news coverage, creating broader dissemination and promoting escalation in real-world outcomes. - James Patrick, Social Intelligence (UK)

It works like this (and people who produce and peddle fake news know this, and they use this to their advantage):

  • A piece of fake news (misinformation/disinformation) is produced. It has all the ingredients required to catch on with a specific target audience so that they can start spreading it among friends and family. It also contains some truth that is typically unrelated (e.g. people in Hong Kong, China were destroying 5G masts during their protests because they had facial recognition cameras attached to them, not because they spread COVID-19).
  • The fake news is generally not yet wildly popular (sometimes it already is), but, it has now caught the attention of fact-checking services. Who believe they now need to refute it as quickly as possible before it spreads further. It’s important to note at this stage that fact-checking is a reactive process. Fake news has to exist first before it can be fact-checked.
  • Now, if the spread (footprint) of the piece of the fake news was small, by fact-checking it, typically by a larger and more legitimate (e.g. trusted by the public, better SEO, etc.) service and website, it starts to reach new audiences who are its target market. Remember, we mostly read to confirm our bias, so, at this stage when a person who is already inclined to believe the fake news reads about it on the fact-checking website, they go on and read further on the new conspiracy theory they have just heard of, seeking out anything to confirm their bias and once it is confirmed, they share the fake news with friends and family and on social media.
  • Alternatively, if the spread (footprint) of the fake news was already relatively large, by fact-checking it several things happen to help it spread further. The first one is that its SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is improved because fact-checking websites have good practices and typically link back to the fake news sources. Secondly, in the minds of conspiracy theorists (most of them), when a mainstream website corrects them or bans them they see this as validation and they typically double down.

During this whole process, not only is the fake news amplified as part of fact-checking but it also reaches new audiences that are possibly its targeted audience who in turn will spread it further.

Are SA whites really being killed ‘like flies’? Why Steve Hofmeyr is wrong - This is a good example of how fact-checking can unintentionally boost the legitimacy and spread of fake news. We (South Africans, most of us) know that there is NO white genocide taking place in the country. However, a small group of people in the country have been repeating this lie in their circles for long enough that it caught mainstream media’s attention and fact-checking services. What happens next is a classic fake news playbook. They get invited to radio and TV so they can be fact-checked. Fact-checking services write and prove (factually) that they are wrong but in the process (like this article) link back to all their social media accounts, their false blog posts, and more. Resulting in boosting the fake news’ signal and it reaching new possible target audiences.

Now, how do we kill fake news?

There is no “silver bullet” but engagement, is the oxygen of fake news. The more you engage it or those who peddle it, the more you are helping it spread. Remember, a person who believes fake news didn’t reach their conclusions because of facts or logic, so, logic dictates, no amount of facts that you present to them will stop them from believing it. You are better off, for all our sake, not engaging completely.

It is not easy to disengage. I know this. I have been guilty of it too.

Mea culpa.

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