Scammers, spammers, and spreaders of fake news have leaped on the coronavirus crisis, proliferating dodgy text messages and emails, hoax posts and videos, and other misinformation to flood inboxes and social media, ‘As well as messages from scammers and well-meaning but ill-informed individuals, certain nations have been accused of generating sophisticated misinformation. A report from the Financial Times suggested a series of text messages spread throughout the US purporting to be from “a friend of a friend in the FBI” or a “brother in law in the military” were probably sent by operatives in Russia and China looking to cause chaos and confusion.
Such messages, some suggesting the UK government will completely lock down the country, maybe driving panic buying and stockpiling. Other versions of the messages suggest cures or preventative measures, such as drinking water constantly or gargling with saltwater, whether this advice comes from Russian spies or from a well-meaning friend, the information is false and won't prevent infection, the only measures to avoid the coronavirus are social distancing and regular handwashing.
Other posts are a more obvious con, selling cures and treatments for COVID-19 or suggesting products that insure against infection, such as vitamins and teas - none of which will have any positive effect against the virus, such ads are already being targeted by the authorities and social networks.
Meanwhile, hackers - who often capitalize on times of chaos and disruption - have been sending messages that link to malware-infected sites or have dangerous files attached. If
you're working from home, be sure the email from HR is what it says before Clicking the link and entering your logins.
How will it affect you?
If you don't know the original source of a message, don't forward it. It may seem helpful to share a screenshot of text purporting to be from someone's friend whose mum works in the NHS but you should only do so it if you're certain the information can be trusted. In these times, false information can be a danger to health and add unnecessary anxiety.
‘So how do you spot a dodgy message? Verify any claimed source ~ the message quotes, for example, “Cambridge doctors”, check the University of Cambridge website. Alternatively, perform a quick online search of the information and see if it matches official guidance from the World Health Organisation or EPHI. You can also look up the details on fact-checking websites such as Snopes (www.snopes.com) or Full Fact (fullfact.org), which verify viral content and news stories.
Some scams are easy to spot: if a post or message offers a cure, it’s fake; if it's selling a protective product, that's a lie. In Iran, dozens of people have died of alcohol poisoning after drinking bootleg alcohol that claimed to cure COVID-19: and in the UK, there have been arrests of scammers selling snake-oil solutions.
None of this means that you shouldn't share memes with family and friends to lighten the current grim mood or avoid sending useful updates and advice to people in your networks. But ensure the original source is trustworthy before you hit Send, or you risk spreading disinformation.
What do we think?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted plenty of flaws in our society, and that includes the spread of fake news and the abuse of communication tools for spamming and scamming - that's true even in non-pandemic times. We're too eager to share without first checking the source, which is why fake news and scams spread all too easily.
Tech giants could also do more to suppress the worst of such behavior. Twitter has started banning false health information on the site. it’s a shame it took a pandemic for the social network to see this an issue worth addressing, But it’s also down to us: we all know to ask doctors for health advice, not random people on the internet. Do your best to discourage friends and family from spreading such messages, and don't do it yourself. Instead, share links and information from verifiable, trust worthy sources ~ not a friend-of-a- friend's brother-in-law who knows a guy.
This article first appears on WebUser magazine Issue 498 published on 14 April 2020