The amount of data generated by humanity has grown significantly over the past half-century. It is challenging for a modern person who exists in the conditions of a real possibility of instantaneous transfer of colossal amounts of information to distinguish what corresponds to reality from fake news. The information age seems to be turning into an age of disinformation as we see an increase in the number of deliberately misleading stories being broadcast and received as news. False news is dangerous for our society for three reasons. First, they mislead people and damage their health and lives. Second, they lead to a crisis of democracy and create a false political agenda. Third, they undermine the credibility of the mass media institution as a whole.
In early 2020, the problem of false information about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and checking the facts on this topic arose. As Orso et al. (2020) state, initially, fake news was based on two large groups of conjectures: the disease’s reality and the origin of the virus. Fake news of the first group was actively spread among those who, in principle, denied the existence of COVID-19. Such versions were initially supported by the heads of some states and influencers.
The second, more “popular” group of conjectures was most widespread among those who thought about the artificial origin of the virus and cited many conspiracy theories in support of this version. The third group of fake news can be combined on medical grounds. With a decrease in critical perception and the general expectation of a worsening of the situation, such fake news can spread rapidly. This is especially facilitated by references to a conspiracy by the authorities and the media, used as an attempt to explain why this information is not in official sources.
It is the bias of fake news that is another essential aspect of the problem. This tool can be used more often by supporters of politicians, distorting public opinion. Thus, studies have noted that on the eve of the elections, fake news was much more often in favor of Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Since political rumors and inaccurate information influence electoral behavior (Weeks & Garrett, 2014), this situation can have serious consequences. Fakes can influence the results of a particular vote and undermine the very institution of elections. Some studies associate the emergence of an alienated and cynical attitude towards candidates with the consumption of fake news (Balmas, 2014). Probably, this can also shape the perception of the electoral system as a whole.
Another adverse effect of fake news is the decline of trust in mass media in general. It can be explained both by personal experience of encountering inaccurate information and by a public discussion on this issue. At the same time, according to some estimates, active discussion of the problem of fakes by the political elite does not lead to more accurate identification of false news but negatively affects the accuracy of identification of reliable information (Duyn & Collier, 2019). Thus, an active public discussion on this issue only increases skepticism towards the media and does not increase information literacy. This has a negative effect, not only because it makes it difficult to disseminate truthful messages but also because trust in the media is accepted as a prerequisite for democracy (Ardèvol-Abreu et al., 2018).
Opponents say that fake news is not as threatening as it appears at first glance. The majority of Internet users still consume news messages from the most famous resources (Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2011; Prior, 2013), and the audience of fake news, as a rule, is not too large in relation to the total number of consumers of news content. However, this line of reasoning does not take into account that not only does false news travel faster than true stories, but has a much broader reach (Lazer et al., 2018). Thus, even though the audience of false news may be small initially, disinformation may soon spread so much that it really affects people’s opinions and behavior.
Fake news is a serious threat for three reasons: it damages the health and lives of its audience; it also threatens essential tools of democracy and undermines the credibility of media institutions. Self-regulation of the professional journalist community can be an answer to the problem of false news. It should be noted that fake and truthful news is better recognized by people with a higher level of education and older age, and the development of critical thinking skills can partially solve the problem under consideration (Horn & Veermans, 2019). In this way, industry efforts and outreach activities can mitigate some of the fake news problem.
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