“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws,” wrote Douglas Adams. The coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of the power of information – and of the consequences of misinformation.
Political leaders are fighting to control the narrative about the pandemic and how to deal with it. They are battling against cybercriminals who are looking to capitalize on peoples’ concerns and the constant barrage of information across all communications channels to spread fake news, and trick users into being infected with malware or handing over sensitive personal information.
The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it an ‘infodemic.’ “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than the virus, and it is just as dangerous,” he said in February. This was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who implored citizens: “I ask you not to believe rumors, but only official communications.”
The problem is, cybercriminals and bad actors understand the way we consume and spread information by email, websites, and social media, and are expert in nudging people into falling for their online scams and lies. And with entire countries globally on lockdown and their populations eager to stay informed about new developments, there’s no better time for those bad actors to get to work.
Action and reaction
The online giants are doing their best to respond to the fake news and scam infodemic: Google and social media companies have all committed to identifying and removing misleading or harmful content around the pandemic while promoting authoritative material from genuine sources. Retailers such as Amazon are cracking down on adverts and products that make false claims for effectiveness against the virus.
But these measures only work reactively, after they have already been live and circulating for some time – which means they can still cause disruption, harm and losses before they are removed. So how can individuals develop and enhance their personal immunity against fake news? Here are five key questions that we should all ask ourselves when we see, or receive, information that claims to be an update related to coronavirus.
1. Who sent it, and why?
This is a particularly important question for emails. Cybercriminals often impersonate the identity of organizations or trusted sources in order to gain the trust of the recipient. As such, when we receive any type of notification, check whether we subscribed to a newsletter or similar communication issued by the organization in question. Without this, the organization is highly unlikely to have access to our contact details – or have a genuine reason for contacting us.
2. Does the message have spelling or grammar mistakes?
Everyone makes a typo from time to time. However, messages which are littered with such errors are often a sign that it was originally written in another language and pushed through an automatic translator. This, in turn, is a common sign that the message is illegitimate.
3. Where does the URL lead?
Many of the messages originated by cybercriminals do not include the entire story, but instead invite the recipient to click on a link – which then turns out to be infected. As such, it is crucial to check the URL before you click on it. Some malicious URLs are clearly fake, incorporating long strings of illegible letters or numbers, or slight variations on the spelling of a legitimate site. If you are unsure, URL checkers are available for free online.
4. Does the message include verified sources?
A key tenet of trustworthy news, particularly when figures or hard data are concluded in the story, is verifiable and credible sources. For Coronavirus, public institutions such as the Department of Health or organizations such as the WHO are most relevant. A message which contains sources of dubious origin – or no sources at all – is much more likely to be fake.
5. Is it really exclusive information?
On occasion, branches of the media do have access to exclusive data which have not been shared with other outlets. However, they should always be viewed with a certain degree of skepticism, and particularly when they pertain to an evolving health crisis in which all news outlets are generally receiving the same core updates from politicians and public bodies. Google News is recommended for actively searching out news stories, since it only shows news from trusted sources.
Using these simple steps to double-check coronavirus-related stories or messages, and using common sense to verify the sources and URLs, are the most effective methods of being infected by the infodemic of fake news.