MANY OF our members find themselves on the WhatsApp groups of local Mutual Aid Groups (MAGs) that have sprung up in response to covid-19. These have been, in my experience, excellent. Long may they continue after the crisis ends.
But it wasn't long before the unfounded covid-19 rumours and conspiracy theories started to circulate on mine.
First it was the "news" that a forthcoming total lockdown was on the way, in which nobody would be allowed out of their homes in any circumstances. This our informant had on good authority. When pressed, they admitted it had come from their Zumba instructor.
Then we received dangerously dubious recipes for home-made hand sanitiser. Fortunately, it wasn't long before a furloughed chemical engineer on the list waded in and said "no, that's not how you do it".
I thought long and hard what to do about the "total lockdown" rumour, as the consequences of some of these ideas taking hold could be very dangerous.
Eventually I decided to introduce myself to the list as a journalist and offer to fact-check any claims made to the MAG's list. I also looked for some resources online on how to work out whether something you've seen on social media is for real or fake news, checked these out and copied and pasted their URLs to the MAG WhatsApp list. I got a few WhatsApp-style yellow thumbs-up emojis from total strangers in return. I am pleased that my services haven't been called on since.
One poster to the list themselves corrected a spurious claim they'd posted, within minutes of doing so, with an apology - about which everyone was gracious and kind. Warnings to ignore unfounded rumours that were circulating soon outnumbered conspiracy theories on the MAG list.
What can we as journalists do about the covid-19 conspiracies that swirl around the MAG WhatsApp groups? There was the warning to BAME patients that they would be abandoned to die if they went a hospital in Bradford, with advice to keep taking "black seed oil"; the assertion the the 5G mobile phone signal caused or exacerbated coronavirus; the belief that covid-19 is just a hoax...
For starters, we can take the time to read the excellent "COVID conspiracy theories: what's a journalist to do?" by Bristol NUJ Branch Chair Paul Breeden, on the Bristol NUJ Branch website. Yes, it has references.
We can offer our services to our local MAG, explaining the way we work and how we check facts and sources. Some of us may have lost all our work and found ourselves in enforced idleness, perhaps making us feel that our skills have no use in these unprecedented times. They do. We can offer to train others in how to spot the warning signs that something cannot be right about a story. Just as importantly, we can show our neighbours how to confirm that a story is all true.
At at time when some of us are talking to our neighbours for the first time ever, now is the time to rescue journalism's rock-bottom reputation. While you're at it, now is the time to be proud about being in a trade union. For the first time since the 1970s, a Tory government is talking to unions on a regular basis. Unions suddenly have more influence.
Practically, we at the Freelance have begun to compile a list of resources to help us distinguish accurate reporting from covid-19 conspiracy theory nonsense. Please add to the list, or if you think on examination that some of these resources are themselves rubbish, let us know.
Any tips on how to educate people to spot conspiracy theories will be received gratefully, as will shared experiences on your attempts to do so, including those that didn't work. Please send contributions to email@example.com.
We should remind everyone that believing a loopy covid-19 conspiracy theory isn't the same a healthy dissent. It's OK to debunk conspiracy theories and also to be sceptical of the considerable official spin on how the authorities are handling the crisis. Expressing dissent around the official version of events is not the same as believing that covid-19 is a hoax, or invented in a lab, or whatever.
- Full Fact: "the UK's independent fact-checking charity", has a "How you can fact check claims about the new coronavirus" page, which links to all its fact-checks since the covid-19 crisis began. They also have an "Ask Full Fact about the new coronavirus" form.
- Bellingcat: Investigating Coronavirus Fakes and Disinfo? Here Are Some Tools For You.
- Please send your additions to firstname.lastname@example.org