Ask an Expert: Lara Zwarun shares insight on stopping the spread of fake news amid the COVID-19 pandemic

by | Apr 1, 2020

Why there’s so much fake news, what the average consumer can do and how coronavirus is changing the media landscape.
UMSL Daily spoke to , Associate Professor of Communication and Media Lara Zwarun about strategies to slow the spread of disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by August Jennewein)

UMSL Daily spoke to Associate Professor of Communication and Media Lara Zwarun about strategies to slow the spread of disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Coronavirus has birthed not only a pandemic but an infodemic. There’s a flood of information ­about the virus – correct and incorrect – that makes parsing reliability nearly impossible, according to the World Health Organization.

In other words, fake news is at record highs.

The term refers to disinformation, which is often-sensational, and both alternative and mainstream news sources have been accused of spreading it – depending on one’s perspective and political bent.

In order to understand why there’s so much fake news out there, what the average consumer can do to verify sources and how coronavirus is changing the media landscape, UMSL Daily called upon Lara Zwarun, associate professor of communication and media at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Zwarun’s expertise is in persuasion in the media, including how risky or sensitive messages are designed and received, and whether media literacy can minimize their impact. She’s widely published in journals such as Media Psychology, American Journal of Public Health and Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and the University of Missouri System named her a Presidential Engagement Fellow in 2019.

Why do you think there’s so much fake news right now? Why is the term in our society’s consciousness?

It’s an almost-perfect storm of factors. First, we had incredible relaxation of regulation on the media starting in the 1980s, including rules that limited how many media outlets you could own. That’s the birth of big media conglomerates that are beholden to stockholders. That created a real emphasis on generating profits, and as a result, we see tons of firings of news reporters, consolidations of newsrooms, getting rid of news bureaus and an expectation of sharing resources across media outlets.

Then, moving into the 2000s and 2010s, there is the advent of social media, with new ways to spread things and things going viral. People have always looked up to celebrities, but with social media, you can follow them and feel like you’re part of their inner circles. Now, a credible source is somebody who’s popular, who has likes and followers, whereas before, it was someone who had expertise and trustworthy.

Then we have a shift to algorithms, which is the math going on behind the scenes that tries to predict what you will like and controls what you are exposed to. People are getting content that they didn’t necessarily ask to get, and aren’t aware there is content they don’t see. Plus, the more people click on or share content, the more other people get that same content, thanks to the algorithms. We don’t really mind or question this, because we are all completely overloaded with information. Everyone is competing for our attention through the 24-hour news cycle and clickbait.

We also have trends in advertising, like product placement and native advertising, where you have content that looks a lot like it belongs to the magazine or website. To the extent that people are aware of that, it makes them suspicious. At the same time, we have a president who uses the phrase fake news very repeatedly. People listen to him and believe him that the New York Times is fake news and CNN is fake news.

Thinking about the coronavirus, why is this perfect storm of fake news especially problematic?

For one thing, science literacy in our country, certainly in our world, is not high. You have a subject that people are not especially well versed in – germs and viruses and spread of disease and mathematical modeling. Then with everybody being stuck in their houses, it’s very natural to turn to the media for information.

Increasingly, people get their news through social media – especially younger generations. They’re not going to pick up a newspaper. They will scroll through their Twitter or Facebook or Instagram feeds and see friends who have posted articles and links and headlines. Two interesting things happens when that occurs. One is, even if you do click through and read the article, you’re already biased because it’s been filtered already. It was posted by your crazy aunt or your friend who you respect. You already have a proclivity to think it’s outrageous or it’s believable or intelligent just by where you saw it. The other, of course, is you don’t have to click on it.

Now, a lot of times, you’ve got the person who is originally responsible for creating the message as well as the person who is responsible for it being in front of your eyes. There’s two layers that can have questionable credibility. That’s more work evaluating information when people don’t want to do more work.

In addition to this being a pandemic, this whole coronavirus thing is also an infodemic because there is so much bad information floating around. People from the World Health Organization were actually pulling in favors from all the higher ups that they knew at Facebook and AirBnB and Pinterest and other sites where people might be searching for related information, and saying to them, “I know you usually just host your content, but can we get you to make some links to legitimate information automatically pop up on your website?” Now, we are seeing all that, but a month ago, that would have been really unthinkable that Amazon would send you to somebody else’s website for information.

Of course, that’s a slippery slope because once you open up that can of worms where corporations and the government are directing or encouraging you to go to certain websites, then there’s a chance the next time we won’t like the sources that they’re endorsing.

How can viewers evaluate news materials about COVID-19?

Ideally, you would evaluate the source, meaning who wrote it originally as well as who it’s coming through. There are a lot of clues if you pay attention.

Some of the stuff that gets spread around has wrong dates or is outdated. A lot of the messages have bad errors – grammar, spelling, punctuation– or they don’t seem to be written by a native speaker. We should be wary of clickbait. Sensational headlines suggest that somebody is trying to get our attention, and maybe they’re more interested in views or hits than informing people.

Look for something that comes from a respected institution versus a person that you’ve never heard of. Maybe some of the mainstream media does have a bit of a slant, but people who work for those organizations are trained journalists and have ethics, best practices. If it is an organization that you haven’t heard of, try to go to their “about us” or “mission” page. A lot of times, they’re pretty honest there. Or sometimes people mistake satire for real news. Look at the actual URL of the website and follow some of the links on the page to supporting information.

Fact checking sites can be helpful. They’ve had some challenges, too, in the sense that the fake media label has been put on some of them. But, generally, they not only tell you why they think something is true or false, but they give you the links to go see for yourself.

Is the information repeated somewhere else? If you see it on five or 10 other places, that’s a better indication that it’s probably true. You can also check out other stories and headlines on the same site. Maybe the one you’re reading seems plausible, but some of the other stuff would be so incredible that you quickly realize this is not a legitimate news source.

Those are concrete tips. They just require a little bit more effort.

What about information that’s coming from people who should be credible sources but that seems bizarre?

That’s a real problem, knowing when a message from an official is legitimate information and when it is an off-the-cuff remark. Donald Trump totally changed the rules of that game. He has made a lot of formal declarations via Twitter, but certainly plenty of his tweets are not. I think at the very least, public officials should probably say somewhere on their tweet or their message, “This is me talking informally” or “This is official state business.”

It goes back to what I was saying about expertise now being measured in popularity. If you post something that ends up to be untrue but it generates retweets and likes and followers, you’ve done a great thing for your brand.

The good thing about the internet is that there’s always more clicks. Again, it requires critical thinking and effort on the part of the audience member. It’s usually not that hard to debunk things, but it seems like a lot of people are not willing to make that effort and are not media savvy. I’ve noticed that with my students.

It seems that older generations aren’t always media literate either. People who are intelligent and educated can’t parse what’s legitimate and what’s not.

For people that are older than college students, it can be a lot of work to keep up. The media industry has changed so much and to be able to have a smartphone or have a tablet or a laptop and be able to email or send pictures to your grandkids or get texts takes a lot of mental bandwidth. It’s hard to ask people to get up to speed on all that technology and then not trust it. That’s a generation that had the Nightly News with Peter Jennings or whoever –­ they were heroes in our society. The idea that you have to take every single thing with a grain of salt is overwhelming.

I was flipping through some books in my office, and I came upon this book that we used in the early 2000s that talked about how photo manipulation and digital manipulation can be used unethically. The examples that they were giving were so completely old fashioned. Now, you’ve got entire movies that are computer generated and look completely realistic. That’s where the post-truth idea comes from. We can create a lot of fake reality and most of us wouldn’t really have any way of knowing if it were true or not.

I’ve seen a lot of theories on the various ways that coronavirus is going to change our society. One of those came from Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. His idea is that this is going to make people go back to trusting experts and expertise.

I saw that, too. I really hope that he’s right. I think in this context, death and disease is something that people feel comfortable saying, “I don’t understand this as well as a doctor.” But I’ve also seen people saying, “We need to get Kylie Jenner on board so she can tell her followers to wash their hands more,” or whatever.

This is a reality check for society on some level, a reminder that there are facts. Not everything is an opinion. The question is how much is that going to trickle down to other contexts where the stakes aren’t as high or the information isn’t so scientific and out of reach of the common person.

Are there other ways that you see coronavirus changing fake news or the news media?

I do think it puts more focus on who sources are, more consensus around who the experts are and why they’re experts. I also think that we’re seeing a little bit of a return to ethics and decency. We’ve been forced to be less individualistic. Social distancing is not just about whether you get it. It’s about keeping other people from getting it. And having to check on your neighbors, supporting your local businesses.

Maybe we will soften the polarization politically in this country. A lot of the whole fake news controversy is blue America and red America in their echo chambers, and they don’t believe anything the other one says.

With COVID-19, it matters if the media is treated as something that we need as a democracy to make sure we’re getting crucial messages, or if they’re just like any other marketer whose goal is to sell us whatever we’ll buy. I use an analogy of broccoli and candy. If you ask a 3-year-old, “Do you want broccoli or candy?” they’re going to pick the candy every time. But at some point, the parent has to say, “Alright, that’s enough. Eat some broccoli now.” That’s kind of how I see the debate. Should the government step in and make sure we get some broccoli with our candy? Or should we just let the media offer us the choice, and we choose candy every time?

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen