Culture & Arts
Why do people fall for fake news?Misinformation spreads like wildfire in any major event, but in the case of Covid-19, the spread of fake news can be dangerous to the public.
Manju Shahi’s day begins with her preparing a special drink. She boils water along with pieces of cardamom and cinnamon and then adds turmeric powder. She drinks at least a cup of it daily believing that it will help her and her family members boost their immunity.
"I saw a video on Facebook the other day, where a person was claiming that by drinking this our bodies can fight the novel coronavirus,” says Shahi, a 55-year-old homemaker from Dallu, who has been drinking the concoction for the past three weeks.
Shahi is not the only one who has been following what she sees on social media blindly. In neighbouring India, thousands are drinking cow urine to ‘protect’ themselves from Covid-19. In France, a flurry of tweets stated that cocaine would protect them against the virus.
Misinformation spreads like wildfire in any major event. But this infodemic, meaning an excessive amount of information that circulates on the internet most of which is plagued by fake news, can have far-reaching, hazardous impacts, experts believe. For instance, more than 400 people died in Iran after they followed a fake news that had claimed that coronavirus can be cured by drinking methanol.
Despite such dangers, what makes people so susceptible to fake news and information? According to Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, a media researcher, the writing style of any piece of news plays a significant role in its power to convince people. “Fake news is designed to be attractive, catchy, sensational, and appealing to readers. They are more informal in language than standard news writing, and thus more appealing to readers,” says Acharya, a faculty member of graduate and postdoctoral studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
While many believe that media illiteracy is directly proportional to the proliferation of fake news, studies and articles say that even those who are literate can come under the radar of fake news. “The stories appear so genuine and appealing that they capture the core of the public's sentiment,” says Acharya, who believes that everyone irrespective of their academic background can fall for fake news.
The biggest danger with fake news, however, according to one study and experts the Post spoke to, is that the probability of it reaching a wider audience quickly is high.
One of the major reasons why more and more people depend on social media for information consumption is also because of the people’s reliance on social information to acquaint themselves with the knowledge they lack. According to Danish researchers Vincent F Hendricks and Pelle G Hansen the tendency of people to imitate others by trusting the information they have, particularly when they themselves lack enough information and the time to verify the news, fosters the growth of reliance on social information which could make people believe whatever they see on social media without question.
“When people see a close friend or a prominent figure sharing a news article, even if the piece of information could be potentially fake, the chances of them questioning the piece's credibility is little,” says sociologist Neeti Aryal Khanal.
Authority bias tendency is also deeply embedded in our social structure, which means people are likely to give greater credence to authority figures that can either be celebrities, public figures or even their family members or institutions like media, religious and political groups. This social functioning can also lead to people sharing the information widely and quickly.
Khanal believes that this cognitive bias of any society can accelerate the growth of fake news. “When fake news gets shared by important authority figures, the effects can be damaging. Just them sharing the news means that news gets a stamp of approval; it just becomes real for the people who follow them,” says Khanal, lecturer of sociology at Patan Multiple Campus.
However for 34-year-old Menuka, who has been drinking the panchamrit, a drink made from five substances, on a daily basis, says that she is drinking it just because her family members are telling her to do so. “My father saw some video on YouTube that claimed that by drinking panchamrit we can protect ourselves from coronavirus. Although I don't know how true it is, I have been drinking it because my family members believe in it,” says Menuka.
“Since the culture of not questioning elders is embedded in our society and even our education system, in which critical thinking skills are not imparted well to young people, it becomes easier to accept the news we are exposed to,” says Khanal, who however believes that much research is required to support this hypothesis.
Many researchers say that reduced analytical thinking of people which can germinate from people's inability to think critically could be one of the pushing factors for people to have faith in fake news.
For Shahi, although there’s no scientific claim that the drink she is having can prevent coronavirus, she believes that it might have a positive impact on her as well as her family members health.
“In the video, it was said that our ancestors also drank such concoctions to keep themselves healthy. I think the current generation has forgotten their roots, maybe now is the time to make them realise the importance of ancestral knowledge,” says Shahi.
This kind of attitude is exactly what, according to Khanal, makes people trust fake news easily. “Often fake news affirms people’s views and opinions that may not be accepted easily. If such information comes in the form of a news, they feel emotionally gratified and connected to it, making them believe such information is true,” says Khanal.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.