Impact of fake news
The popularity of fake news as a research topic is partly based on its assumed negative impact on numerous aspects of social life. News reports and personal anecdotes abound that detail different types of real harm caused by fake news. However, compared with the scholarly attention devoted to studying how fake news is characterised, created, circulated, and countered (Bente
2018) , fewer studies have examined the consequences of fake news. A study in the United States concluded that ‘the fake news audience is small and comprises a subset of the Internet’s heaviest users’ (Nelson and Taneja 2018, 3732). The experience of many other countries, however, might be different, given the various levels of social media and messaging app penetration rates around the world, on top of differences in political systems and cultural contexts. Furthermore, tracking the actual spread of fake news is challenging, especially as more and more information exchanges occur on closed messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, that third-party observers and researchers cannot easily track.
Some have expressed concern about the use of fake news as a form of foreign interference, with external actors sowing tensions and perceptions of chaos in a particular community to achieve political ends, such as influencing electoral outcomes or sabotaging economies (Jayaku-mar 2018; Allcott and Gentzkow 2017). Thus, fake news has also been weaponised to weaken trust in social institutions, including science, politics, and journalism (Egelhofer and Lecheler
- 2019) . Others have also explored the impact of fake news on the reputation of organisations. For example, a study found that appearing next to a piece of fake news can affect an online advertisement’s perceived trustworthiness (Visentin et al. 2019). Fake news websites might also exert some agenda-setting effects on a few partisan news sites (Guo and Vargo 2018). A study also found that discourse around fake news can also increase scepticism towards real news (Van Duyn and Collier
- 2019) . These are a few examples of social and organisational implications. But how does fake news affect interpersonal relationships? Understanding the impact of fake news on interpersonal relationships as well as on personal, day-to-day decision-making can help reveal mechanisms that facilitate, if not encourage, the sharing of information regardless of its veracity (see Cabaiies
- 2020) . It can also help explain how individuals respond to fake news and why. For example, a survey conducted in Singapore found that most participants ignore fake news when they come across it on social media, instead of taking steps to correct or report it (Tandoc, Lim et al. 2019).
Fake news has attracted much scholarly attention and rightfully so. It is a problem facilitated by communication technologies and channels that millions routinely use, involves the mimicry of a social artifact imbued with history and legitimacy, and betrays a fundamental virtue that holds communities together: truth. The multitude of studies conducted after fake news rose again to buzzword status in late 2016 has provided us some understanding of the kind of problem we are facing — and yet there are still many things we don’t fully understand.
The spread of the novel coronavirus around the world in 2020 demonstrated there is still a lot of work to do. A church in South Korea, taking its cue from viral messages that claimed gargling saltwater could kill the virus that causes COVID-19, sprayed salt water into the mouths of its followers, infecting dozens of people (Park 2020). A spokesperson for the Philippine government echoed in a public broadcast viral social media messages that wrongly claimed eating bananas can protect people from COVID-19 (Luna 2020). In the United States, President Trump mentioned in a televised press briefing injecting disinfectants into people to kill the virus — this was followed by a few cases of Americans ingesting disinfectants (Slotkin 2020). Fake news provides one channel for falsehoods to enter public consciousness, but mainstream news coverage also provides another pathway as falsehoods now also come from political leaders whose voices dominate real news.
Fake news spreads like a virus — all it takes is one vulnerable host to spread it to others. Online and offline communities are still in need of being disinfected. As information technologies develop and people’s communication needs, habits, and values change, the phenomenon of fake news will also continue to evolve.