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Influencers Spread COVID-19 Misinformation – How Brands Can Help Fix the Problem
influencers share fake covid-19 news

Image source: Department of Defense

Celebrities, politicians and others with large social media followings have become instrumental in spreading fake news about coronavirus, new research reveals.

While ordinary people may initiate most misinformation, influencers substantially boost fake news when they share it with their large followings, according to research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures made up just 20% of misinformation in its sample but accounted for 69% of total social media engagement.

Online misinformation impacts world health. Research from King’s College London, suggests a link between people who believe false claims about the coronavirus and people who flout the government’s social distancing guidelines.

Misinformation Examples

The Guardian cites some examples of celebrities promoting misinformation: Actor Woody Harrelson shared Instagram posts containing bogus claims that 5G mobile phone networks help spread the virus.

British singer MIA, who also opposes vaccinations, posted tweets suggesting that 5G base stations create symptoms similar to those of coronavirus.

In an Instagram post, British boxer Amir Khan claimed coronavirus was man-made to cull the world’s population and said the lockdown was used to provide cover for the rollout of 5G.

An investigation by The New York Times asserts that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has spearheaded misinformation campaigns on issues of personal health for more than a decade. His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists. In February, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog’s claims that pathogen was a germ weapon designed to incapacitate and kill.

Ex-Bachelor contestant Krystal Nielson claimed in an Instagram post that a 10-day detox of smoking, alcohol and sugars strengthens the immune system to fight the coronavirus.  While some followers questioned Nielson’s medical claims, many more believed her, notes BuzzFeed News reporter Tanya Chen. A sustained detox of smoking and alcohol can certainly improve s person’s health but won’t do much to fight coronavirus.

Influencers who promote misinformation have themselves become epidemic. . Some only want to promote products; others genuinely want to help. Either way, people with large bullhorns can cause damage by spreading bogus medical advice.

Advice for Influencers and Brands

“My only advice to influencers: Please exercise your discretion. And if there’s any question about it, perhaps just … don’t,” Chen writes. “Not saying something can do a lot more good.”

Brands can help limit the spread of misinformation by avoiding celebrities and other influencers known for sharing fake news. A social media monitoring and measurement tool can review influencers’ content for spurious medical claims and other bogus assertions. Social media monitoring combined with monitoring of traditional media can notify PR of coronavirus fake news associated with their brands.

A media monitoring dashboard dedicated to the coronavirus can substantially improve the organization’s media monitoring and measurement. Real-time email alerts allow organizations to respond quickly when company, products or other keywords are mentioned online.

World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the world is fighting an ‘infodemic’ of fake news in addition to an epidemic. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous,” he stated. If we believe misinformation rather than facts, “we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony.”

Fact-checkers, Social Media Networks Struggle to Contain Misinformation

Independent fact-checkers moved quickly to respond to the surge of misinformation regarding COVID-19, the Reuters Institute report states, noting that the number of English-language fact-checks rose more than 900% from January to March.

Social media platforms usually remove the social media posts that fact-checkers flagged or placed warnings on them. The study found significant variation between platforms. On Twitter, 59% of posts rated as false by fact-checkers remain up. On YouTube, 27% remain up, and on Facebook 24% of false-rated content in the sample remain up without warning labels.

Misleading or false claims about the actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies like the WHO or the UN, are the single largest category of claims identified, appearing in 39% of the sample.

Most (59%) of the misinformation reviewed involves various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, “recontextualised” or reworked. Less misinformation (38%) was completely fabricated. Despite recent concerns about deep fakes, researchers, found no examples of the sophisticated fake videos. They did find plenty of ‘cheap fakes’ produced using much simpler tools.

Public health depends on accurate information about COVID-19. Business and non-profit organizations and their marketing and PR departments have an obligation to avoid supporting spreaders of misinformation that may harm individuals and communities. They should coax the culprits to remove and renounce inaccurate information. They should also refute misinformation on their organizations’ owned media sites. Strengthening public health information is in everyone’s best interest and will help advance the reputation of the organization.

Bottom Line: Celebrities with large social media followings frequently share fake news and other forms of misinformation. Their inaccurate advice can harm people’s health. Brands can help counter the fake news epidemic by re-examining their influencer partners and monitoring and rebutting misinformation online.

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