Stories that the 5G antennas of mobile networks spread the coronavirus or eating avocado makes you immune could not be further from the truth, but many people believe this fake news because they have seen it somewhere on the internet without verifying where it comes from.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, young Mexican scientists have begun the fight against another virus, that of ‘fake news’.
Through “MexiCiencia”, a group of researchers have set about debunking myths and erroneous beliefs on current issues, which are now about coronavirus.
On their website and @MexiCiencia social media account, these Mexicans working abroad seek to contribute their knowledge to society and use their scientific work to debunk myths about the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Francisco Cuéllar Pérez, a biologist who studies gene expression in cancer cells who is part of MexiCiencia, says that their skills and abilities help them evaluate the available data.
“The skills and abilities we have allow us to evaluate and weigh data. As we can access and read scientific papers, we debate them with each other and produce content to explain them in an accessible way to the population so that they are informed,” he says.
The Harm of Fake News
They warn that while some people may understand that certain fake news stories are a form of humor to talk about current affairs, other people take them very seriously.
During 2020, misinformation in these types of stories has caused the burning of telecommunications masts in the United Kingdom and an attack on the relatives of someone who was killed by the virus at a hospital in Ecatepec in the State of Mexico, as well as the ingestion of ‘alkaline’ foods that are believed to prevent this disease.
“I saw a text about how avocados can protect you against COVID-19 because it has a pH of 18. That is not true. No one is going to get sick from eating avocado, but the problem is that this fake news can lead people to do dangerous things such as self-medicate,” warns Adriana Cortés Gómez, a veterinarian with epidemiology training in zoonoses, i.e. diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa.
Why do we believe fake news?
The young scientists agree that one of the reasons is a lack of education, but at a psychological level, fear accompanies our erroneous beliefs about things we do not understand.
Veterinarian Adriana Cortés says that believing in fake news stems from fear and misinformation in general that leads people to look for options to feel more secure.
“A low educational level and lack of critical thinking makes it difficult to discern false news from real news. Furthermore, fear of the unknown or of what we don’t understand manifests in the desire to have something that makes us feel better,” explains Cuéllar.
Alejandro Sánchez, a scientist specializing in genomics and bioinformatics, says that the tendency of many people to refuse to believe in the coronavirus as a disease is due to the fact that we are mourning the loss of our previous lifestyle to the pandemic during quarantine.
“People can’t live like they did five months ago and for scientists and doctors it’s a race against time,” Sanchez points out about the development of vaccines or treatments that help mitigate infections.
Tips to Identify Fake News
Some fake news articles are easier to identify than others. The telecommunications company AT&T shares six general tips to avoid being hoodwinked:
Read the full story, not just the headline. Fake news headlines are usually flashy or sensationalist, whilst the body of the text may have grammatical errors, misspellings, or even be out of date.
Compare the headline with others in a search engine. The results will tell you if other media have corroborated or refuted the information.
Be suspicious of messages forwarded on social media. The most dangerous ones are those that ask you to log into social networks, request personal information, or install plugins to open attachments.
If the story refers to the source of the information, make sure it refers to official information, whether that be a specialist in the subject or from a prestigious institution.
If the information is about an institution or company, make sure that the article is also available on the official page or on their official social media accounts.
Don’t automatically share information on your social media. Be skeptical and don’t contribute to the disinformation that has become even more problematic during this emergency.