Hugh Ellis

In this Covid-19 crisis, it was only a matter of time before fake news would rear its ugly head.

No, a brand-new vaccine is not on the market in France (at bare minimum, another 18 months of research to make sure it is safe and it works, lie ahead). That picture you may have seen, supposedly of French doctors and policemen celebrating the new vaccine, was actually taken in Spain some years ago.

Bananas are a nutritious fruit, but there’s no proof that eating them dramatically reduces your risk of contracting Covid-19.

There is no evidence Covid-19 was a biological weapon the Chinese developed to cement their dominance of the world economy (killing your best customers and shutting down world trade doesn’t exactly sound like a good way to grow your businesses, and the principles of viral adaptation and natural selection more than adequately explain the emergence of a new disease every several decades).

As an academic in the field of media studies, my colleagues and I study the phenomenon of fake news for several reasons.

We study fake news to advise people on how to not fall prey to false information.

We advise students to do a simple Google search on any information they are forwarded on social media. To upload any viral photograph to Google Images and do what is called a ‘reverse image search’ – to see if, when, and where that photo has been published before.

We advise people to consider the credibility of the site that has published the info. Bananas as a Coivd-19 cure sounds great on www.myconspiracytheory.com, but when not one single peer-reviewed medical journal supports it, you’ve got to ask why. There are fact-checking sites that assess the veracity of online information, like AfricaCheck and Snopes.com. They’re worth a click.

We teach our students to apply Ockham’s Razor: the 13th century philosopher said that the simplest possible explanation is the most likely to be true.

For sure, if you put enough intellectual effort into it, you can imagine vast conspiracies to develop biological weapons by the Chinese (or the Russians or the Americans). But a simpler explanation, the natural process of viruses adapting their DNA through mutation and thus securing new hosts, is available, and there’s no reason to deny it. Not least because this has happened plenty times before – see the Bubonic Plague, Ebola, Spanish Flu, Avian-Human Influenza.

Another way we academics approach fake news is to ask what its function is.

Consciously or unconsciously, we share fake news because it does things for us. It tells us what we want to believe.

We want to believe that there’s an easy way out of what would otherwise be months of global trauma. It makes us feel good to think that all we have to do is eat bananas or drink baking soda or rely on the French virologists. The upsetting reality is that only a massive change in our personal habits in the short term, and a much more equal society in the long term, will get us through this.

We believe fake news because it reduces our culpability and guilt. It’s easier for the world-travelling global middle class to believe that Covid-19 was a conspiracy of the corrupt Chinese Politburo, than to acknowledge that it’s our own holidaymaking and business travel that allowed the virus to turn up in Milan and New York and Johannesburg within a few weeks of each other.

We share fake news because it supports our political views. I myself am guilty of this.

I’m no fan of Brexit. So when I saw a report about a large crowd walking through central London on Brexit Day shouting ‘Fuck the Poles’, it seemed to exemplify the racism and nasty nationalism that underpinned the Brexit campaign. I shared it as ‘truth’ because it tied in with what I already believed. It later emerged that the Londoners with a sexual preference for lampposts were satire – a political joke.

When you know better you do better. Having analyzed my mistake, I am less likely to make it again.

Unlike some, I don’t support Government regulation to weed fake news out of the Internet. Rather, an educated populace – people who know how to be careful in their choice of information, and to question their own motives – will, in due time, eliminate most of the fakes by themselves.

Hugh Ellis teaches journalism and digital literacies in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views he expresses here are personal views. Check out Hugh’s blog on http://ellishugh.wordpress.com