When fake news goes viral

Uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with stay-at-home policies implemented in many cities around the world, has led to an increase in media consumption everywhere.

News outlets, which have long complained about losing audiences to social media platforms, have seen spikes in television ratings and site visits as audiences seek information on the pandemic.

Social media platforms have also seen heavier traffic than ever before, while video streaming sites have had to cut down on video quality in some places to accommodate a surge in demand.

Through a series of surveys and focus group discussions, my team has been keeping an eye on the media use patterns and information behaviours of Singaporean residents during this pandemic.

Surveying the information-seeking behaviour of Singapore residents

To find out how young adults are navigating the uncertainty brought about by the outbreak, my project officer, James Lee Chong Boi, and I conducted eight focus group discussions involving 89 young adults in Singapore who were recruited from the NTU student population in February 2020.

By the time we completed the focus group discussions, Singapore had 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Back then, the young adults we interviewed had already expressed uncertainty about the nature of the virus, whether to wear a mask, and how long the outbreak would last.

While uncertainty reduction theories assume that individuals seek to reduce uncertainty by seeking more information, we found that most young adults we interviewed engaged in information scanning behaviour—they did not actively seek information about the outbreak but they also did not avoid information about it.

By signing up for alerts on messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp, which were set up by news outlets and the Singapore Government, our survey respondents could be alerted when a new update was ready but also control exactly when they attended to these messages.

Tracking COVID-19-related information seeking

Social media and messaging apps have long been used for news-related purposes, but more so during this pandemic. We observed this in a three-wave national survey my colleague Asst Prof Kim Hye Kyung from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) and I conducted between February and April 2020.

In the first survey involving 1,000 residents in Singapore conducted between 25 February and 10 March 2020, we tracked, among other topics, information seeking and scanning in relation to COVID-19.

We found that local television news was a significant source of COVID-19 information for about 57% of our respondents, but we also found significant increases in the use of digital platforms over the span of two weeks in a second survey conducted between 12 March and 1 April 2020 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percentage of participants who indicated they use the news source for COVID-19 “frequently” or “very frequently.” Of the 1,000 Singaporean residents who took part in the survey conducted between 25 February and 10 March 2020, 767 participated in another survey carried out between 12 March and 1 April 2020.

Some 56% said they used mainstream news sites frequently or very frequently—this number increased to 64% after two weeks. Similarly, WhatsApp news use increased from 37% to 44% while Facebook news use increased from 36% to 43% over two weeks.

Spreading online falsehoods

Increased social media and messaging app use has its dark side, as it also increased the risk of users being exposed to misinformation about the virus.

Since January, my student Mak Weng Wai, who is a history major at NTU’s School of Humanities, and I have been analysing COVID-19-related messages being forwarded on WhatsApp.

Over the span of three months, we were able to collect 153 forwarded messages—messages that were not originally created by the sender. Through our own fact-checking, we found that 35% of the forwarded messages about COVID-19 were false. Examples include several versions of a message claiming that gargling saltwater protects one from COVID-19 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: (left) An example of a message on protective measures against COVID-19 being forwarded on WhatsApp by some users in Singapore; (right) A message created by the World Health Organisation to debunk viral messages like the one shown on the left. Credit: (left) Social media screenshot; (right) World Health Organisation.

While 28% of the forwarded messages were based on accurate information, some 20% of the messages mixed true and false information. For example, one forwarded WhatsApp post included a video of a Malaysian student in London recording a message for his parents. The post claimed the student contracted the virus at a party and died of COVID-19. While the video recording is real, the student had to later clarify in a Facebook post that he is very much alive.

In a news commentary for Channel NewsAsia, Mak Weng Wai and I wrote, “Online falsehoods work like viruses. They need to infect one vulnerable host who can then spread them to other hosts.”

Indeed, this pandemic has exposed many of our vulnerabilities, and one of them is our susceptibility to spreading and believing in problematic information, aided by the ease and speed of information flow facilitated by social media and messaging apps.

Fighting misinformation is particularly crucial in a time like this, to protect not just ourselves but also others in the community. This is why it is important for us to keep an eye not only on the public’s information behaviour, but also on the quality of information flowing through various channels—an effort that the work my colleagues and I are doing at WKWSCI seeks to contribute to.

Author: Edson Tandoc Jr
Teaching and researching on news production and consumption, Assoc Prof Edson Tandoc Jr of NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) is also the secretary of the journalism studies division of the International Communication Association and an associate editor of the academic journal Digital Journalism. The research described in this article is part of Assoc Prof Tandoc’s Information Integrity Initiative (IN-Cube), a project that focuses on studying information quality. You can find more details on the research in Sociology Compass (2019), DOI: 10.1111/soc4.12724; and Journalism (2019), DOI: 10.1177/1464884919868325. Assoc Prof Tandoc has also written extensively for newspapers and other news outlets, including Channel NewsAsia.
The article appeared first in NTU’s research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #17, August 2020).

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