The time in which we live has been described as the ‘post truth era’ years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary elected the adjective ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year meaning ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’
For all that, the present climate has been especially conductive to opening a Pandora’s box of fake news. Information shared in news media has considerable power in moulding our beliefs. That is why misinformation, taken at face value, can lead to devastating real-world effects. At no earlier time has this been more apparent than today when fake COVID-19 news travels far and fast. According to a recently published study, at least 800 people in different parts of the world have lost their lives as a result of the spread of COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories on social media. Their deaths were related to false notions such as drinking bleach, sanitiser, and highly concentrated alcohol as a cure to coronavirus disease.
A testament to the magnitude of the misinformation spread is the mythbuster section of the WHO website, which informs the public that, for instance:
masks should not be worn while exercising,
adding pepper to food, drinking bleach, disinfectants, or alcohol does not prevent or cure COVID-19,
climate (warm, cold, or humid) does not prevent the spread of the virus.
Most worrying of all is the all-too-common denial of the existence of the virus, as the number of those infected (today more than 21.5 million) and passing away (almost ¾ of a million) continues to rise. The denial can lead to people not adopting the measures against the virus, most importantly, physical distancing.
Although we are often left to our own devices in distinguishing between reliable reporting and fake news which mimics it, it is good to bear in mind that humans are notoriously gullible and generally unreliable truth detectors. To compensate for the fact that we often resort to emotional instead of logical reasoning, linguists and other scientists have sought to determine the type of language involved in deception. Purveyors of disinformation can be revealed based on their word choice. That is the premise behind the fake news detector developed by the Discourse Processing Lab at Simon Fraser University. It allows users to paste a text written in English, upon which the classification system suggests the text’s genre and the likelihood of it being a true or a false news article.
What is the science behind the algorithm of the fake news detector? Next to checking the facts reported in the article, various linguistic cues may be examined to determine the truthfulness of a text. Texts that should be read with a grain of salt include:
stories that point to exaggerated claims,
use overly emotional language,
and a style that is uncommon in mainstream news sources.
For all the scholarly findings and useful tools, the most important is still our own awareness of how we are affected by the texts that we read. The advice formulated by Denaux and Gómez Pérez in their blog post on a related topic is worth reiterating here.
When we read a text (to rephrase the authors’ conclusion) we should best ask ourselves the following:
Has this article generated a strong emotional response? Why?
Is this source constantly discrediting other sources? And am I familiar with alternative sources of information?
And, most importantly:
Does the author offer a simple and intuitive solution to a complex issue? How much do I actually know about this issue?