What happens if you consume Pop Rocks and Coca Cola at the same time?
For children in the 80s, the answer was automatic: “Your stomach explodes.” If it was met with doubt, the rebuttal was simple: “That’s how Mikey (the kid from the Life cereal commercials) died.”
Only, it never was met with doubt, because we all believed it. It was an open and shut case.
That is, until we learned the cold, harsh truth. Mikey was – and still is – alive and well. He’s probably still eating Life cereal. And if he ever did try the aforementioned snack combination, he’d probably only end up with a little indigestion.
“Huh?” I remember thinking, “it’s not true?”
For me, my classmates, and thousands of other kids, it was our introduction to a time-honored tradition known as a hoax. These days, it’s offered referred to as “fake news” (a term I have come to despise), the concept is nothing new. Hoaxes have been part of our fabric since long before Al Gore invented the internet.
There’s been quite the range over the years, from the classics (George Washington has wooden teeth), to the controversial (mobster Jimmy Hoffa is buried in Giants stadium), to the bizarre (actor Keanu Reeves is immortal). For the most part, it’s harmless entertainment.
Take, for example, a report in 2013 claiming President Obama was injured in an explosion at the White House. That one little Tweet made a lot of noise; the stock market plummeted more than 140 points and bond yields fell. Fortunately, the recovery was swift. But the incident opened many eyes to the dangerous ripple effect that can result from hoaxes.
It’s even more frightening in the digital age, where seemingly all it takes for rumors to be perceived as truth are a bunch of likes and retweets. And in fact, the “intersection of busy social networks and limited attention spans” serves as a breeding ground for viral ideas, according to a recent article. “In a perfect world, only factually accurate, carefully reported and fact-checked stories would go viral,” it pointed out. That, of course, isn’t necessarily the case. “Misinformation and hoaxes spread across the internet, and especially social media, like a forest fire in dry season.”
A study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour confirmed what most FaceBook users have known for a while: “Whether or not a story goes viral has very little to do with whether it’s actually true.” (If that doesn’t make you cringe, I’m not sure what will.)
One of the most notorious – and damaging – examples is myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism. No matter how many studies and researchers have debunked it, it remains alive, thanks largely to celebrities and bloggers who continue to perpetuate it. Not only do many people buy what’s being sold on outlets like Facebook, but it can change the way they think, behave, and vote.
A similar dynamic is at play with coronavirus. It’s becomingly increasingly difficult even for savvy Internet users to decipher fact from fiction, especially when it comes to the extent of the pandemic (one outlet said it has claimed 100,000 lives) and the best course of prevention.
“This dynamic can cause fake coronavirus cures and treatments to fan out widely on social media — and as a result, worsen the impact of the outbreak,” said researcher Bhaskar Chakravorti in an NPR piece. Much like claims that essential oils can block influenza, the remedies have no basis in science. But, if taken as fact, these rumors can accelerate the spread of disease.
The good news is that the scientific community isn’t taking this lying down. The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with tech giants like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok to limit the damage by filtering out false data and promoting accurate information from credible sources. Both Facebook and Twitter have already taken steps to bump up credible sources such as WHO and the CDC in search results for the term “coronavirus.” In addition, Facebook said it is deploying fact-checkers to remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories about the outbreak.
It’s not a silver bullet, by any means. Let’s face it, the Internet is never going to be a hoax-free zone. But it’s a step in the right direction. Even the immortal Keanu Reeves would agree with that.