The fake news virus

07 July 2021
Mauren esquivel

According to WHO, the COVID-19 crisis has been accompanied by the phenomenon of the infodemic; that is, a massive amount of information (some not correct, others not) on a specific topic, which makes it difficult for people to find reliable and trustworthy sources when they need it. This generation and dissemination of information in a context in which millions of people can produce and share content from their cell phones or computers can reach levels of magnitude that are difficult to understand; like, for example, that in 2020, in a minute, they shared on average 500 hours of video on YouTube; 347,222 stories on Instagram; and 42 million messages on WhatsApp. Never in the history of humanity have we had this ability to communicate.

But as the WHO points out, in the context of a pandemic, this capacity has become a particularly dangerous factor, as the number of false news and conspiracy theories about COVID-19, its affectations or vaccination. From associating the virus with mobile; promote false remedies ; or spread fear about vaccination. This type of false information knows no borders and affects all countries; and as mentioned in the previous blog, it can influence compliance with the vaccination goals, so necessary to get out of the crisis.

Of course, fake news is not new, it has been followed for years and studied as the social phenomenon that it is. In 2018, it had already been analyzed that fake news move and they are shared faster than real news, in fact they are 70% more likely to be shared than real news; being people the main responsible, and not armies of bots or computer programs.

Behind this phenomenon of sharing fake news are the so-called cognitive biases, which as the Nobel Prize explains Daniel kahnemanThey are irrational mental shortcuts that affect our decisions, where our beliefs, our reference groups, and our experiences count. And while it is difficult to measure these cognitive biases, Facebook and the Economist Intelligence Unit, as part of its initiative to measure the internet inclusion, have applied a question to internet users from 120 countries, about the level of trust they have in the information shared on social networks from other users. This allows us to discern between the risk that countries have of being more affected than others by fake news.

Thus, Nigeria and Pakistan stand out, where 50% of internet users widely believe in content shared on social networks, being the most credulous of the countries evaluated; In contrast, the most skeptical are Bulgaria and New Zealand with less than 13% of users widely believing information shared on social media by other users.

In the region, Costa Rica with 18% and Panama with 20% are the countries with the lowest percentage of Internet users who widely trust the content of social networks shared by other users; In contrast, Honduras with 32% and Nicaragua with 34% are the countries that trust the most. If we compare with the United States, as a reference, the level of confidence in these contents is 41.8%.

Map 1. Percentage of internet users who widely trust social media content shared by other users.

Source: Prepared by INCAE with data from the Inclusive Internet Index.

Faced with this phenomenon, different efforts have arisen by organizations, governments, companies, the media and civil society to counteract misinformation with filters and information verification mechanisms. And while these efforts are necessary, quality education has been found to be the best filter to defuse fake news. In the region this is clear when the average years of education of Internet users are contrasted, and it is found that the fewer years of education, the more percentage of users trust the content of social networks widely, making them more likely to share false news. .

Graph 1. Relationship between trust in social media content shared by other users and the users' average years of education.

Source: Prepared by INCAE with data from the Inclusive Internet Index.

Finally, the pandemic has reminded us that this phenomenon must be given the importance it requires, since not only have doubts been sown in medicine and science, but also it has cost lives. And it is clear that this phenomenon will continue to be a risk factor for all social dynamics, affecting the social contract, and threatening to destabilize the democraciaplatforms, public debate, our freedoms, and the functioning of our societies. So you have to start taking it seriously, and address it in a coordinated way with governments, the media, companies, civil society and a lot of individual responsibility.