Fake News & The Pandemic: Using Conspiracy to Capitalise On COVID-19 Hysteria

Fake news is defined as information fabricated to mimic or represent media content in an inaccurate or incorrect manner, and indeed is an occurrence within the contemporary cyber realm that challenges ethical expectations when creating and consuming online content. Fake news in most instances “pretends to be real in its presentation” (Nyilasy, 2019), however, the motive and intent one has for creating fabricated news is nuanced. When considering the existence of fake news, one must understand the distinction between misinformation and disinformation as these two words vastly differ in meaning. Disinformation is defined as “deliberate attempts to confuse or manipulate people with dishonest information” (Izzat Alsmadi and O’Brien, 2021) whereas misinformation refers to “misleading information created or shared without the intent to manipulate people” (Izzat Alsmadi and O’Brien, 2021). In this essay, I will be discussing the use of social media as a tool to exploit the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic to capitalise on public hysteria. This essay will also identify whether major media companies such as Facebook sufficiently respond and act upon the creation of accounts whose intent is to spread disinformation regarding vaccine rollouts to support personal ideological agendas. I will also be discussing the ethical nature behind using celebrity status and influence to create and profit off certain products and goods that are claimed to be protective mechanisms against symptoms of the coronavirus. 

There are a myriad of conspiracies surrounding the ways in which taking a COVID-19 vaccine can affect somebody, ranging from fears of receiving a microchip, the alteration of one’s DNA and genetic makeup as well as the idea that vaccines give people the virus altogether. (Curley, 2020). It is these ideas that are rooted heavily in disinformation. However, there is a difference between misinformed individuals sharing information for public consumption, and individuals sharing disinformation altogether; with this distinction being ‘intent’. Greg Nyilasy, Senior Lecturer in Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne suggests that “the primary aim of propagating fake news is the support of a particular position on an issue,” affirming that the purpose of spreading disinformation acts as an effective way to promote and support the personal ideological worldview of an individual by “[fueling] negative attitudes toward vaccination” (Bertin, Nera and Delouvée, 2020) to manipulate readers into sharing and following similar agendas. Reasons in which individuals may desire to perpetuate negative sentiments towards vaccines stems either from a “distrust toward health authorities and their recommendations” (Bertin, Nera and Delouvée, 2020) a distrust toward “multinational pharmaceutical companies…” (Bertin, Nera and Delouvée, 2020) and concern about “drug companies profiteering from vaccines” thus showing “distrust toward government and political parties” (Bertin, Nera and Delouvée, 2020). It is these variables which form the framework for negative sentiments towards vaccines that, in effect, provide conspiracy activists a legitimised platform in which they are able to capitalise on the pandemic’s unprecedented nature. It thus becomes clear that activists aim to “formulate disinformation through conspiracy theories to support and legitimise their [world]views.” (Bertin, Nera and Delouvée, 2020). In accordance with Dr Kolina Koltai, Misinformation Researcher at the Centre at the University of Washington, she states that “[activists] take a quote or a bit of misinformation and isolate it, focusing on just that bit and removing all the other context,” indeed an unethical practice that exist behind the intent to exploit vulnerable and impressionable consumers of information to capitalise on the uncertainty of the pandemic as a means of validating personal agendas against the reception of beneficial vaccines. 

Considering social media has an enormous global reach, its nature as a user-based platform makes the fabrication and mimicry of news significantly easier. Considering the fact that many conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccines are rooted in misinformation, activists have weaponised Facebook’s enormous user-ship as a tool to spread false information for public consumption. In 2021 alone, 430 Facebook accounts were identified, with 45 million people following pages curating and publishing news centered around false information regarding COVID-19 and the vaccines. (Graham-Harrison, Jackson and Heal, 2021). As stated within Section 21 of Facebook’s Terms & Conditions the company suggests that “reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously.” Facebook also claims that the complete removal of fake news posted to the site is not practiced; instead, Facebook claims to “significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.” By extension, on February 9, 2020, Facebook also updated its COVID-19 Policy Updates and Protections to hold themselves accountable for “[reducing] misleading or sensationalized information about vaccines in a way that would be likely to discourage vaccinations.” However, despite claiming responsibility to suppress the distribution of fake COVID-19 content and “protect people from harmful content” (Facebook.com, 2020), Facebook has allowed conspiracy activists to monetise on fake news publications by attaching “Money-Raising Tools” to pages flagged by its own media fact-checking system.  In disregarding their policy promises, it becomes clear that Facebook has benefited off the immense popularity and user traffic to focus on Anti-Vax and COVID-19 conspiracy related pages allowing the company to “benefit financially from users engaging with content and staying on its services, exposing them to more ads” (Graham-Harrison, Jackson and Heal, 2021). With Facebook currently existing as the most used social media platform, 61% of rumors and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 vaccine were most prevalent on the site. (Islam et al., 2021), illuminating the company’s ability to capitalise on disinformation at the expense of individuals who use the widely accessible site to remain accurately updated on vital health related information. 

Considering the instantaneous popularity of face masks and hand sanitiser during the pandemic, these products are well known to be effective in protecting and suppressing viruses from spreading. However, considering the hysteria surrounding the pandemic is still prevalent, ethical advertising practices can be questioned with celebrity attempts to exploit public demand for protective products against the virus by capitalising on COVID-19 through the creation and marketing of products alleged to cure virus symptoms. In using his large media influence and following, a on April 9, 2020, Australian Celebrity Chef Pete Evans advertised a product titled the ‘BioCharger’ before a Facebook live audience of 1.4 million people, claiming the device is effective in curing people from the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’ (TGA, 2020). In accordance with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, they recognise that “people are taking advantage of the current situation by advertising products that claim to prevent or cure COVID-19” and are thus aware of “claims being made [about] unregistered products that [can] kill COVID-19’…” Evan’s company ‘Peter Evans Chef PTY LTD’ was issued an infringement notice for breaching the TGA for making these exact false claims. Following Evans’ first notice, he justified the product’s price of $15,000 by perpetuating false claims on his website ‘www.peteevans.com’ suggesting that the Bio Charger was “proven to restore strength, stamina, coordination and mental clarity” and “accelerate muscle recovery and reduce stiffness in joints” and due to his position as the Director and Secretary of his company, Evans received a fine of $25,200 which was raised to $80,000 in May 2021 for “the repeated nature of advertising breaches” of the TGA. (TGA, 2021) However, Public Health Physician, Medical Activist Dr Ken Harvey suggests that Evans’ should have been reported to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) due to the fact his claims breached Sections 2S.18, S.29, S.224 and S.232 of the Competition and Consumer Act (2010). Considering the hysteria surrounding COVID-19 remains prevalent, made evident by the uncertainty of the pandemic, celebrities can use their influence to create and advertise products to provide their audience. However, it becomes clear that Evans used his influence to exploit consumers with his image as a health and wellbeing expert to promote a product allegedly capable of curing COVID-19. Evans further exploited the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the global demand for essential protective products to capitalise on the public’s hysteric effort to remain safe from COVID-19 by unethically using disinformation through mainstream advertisement to achieve such. 

It becomes clear that due to the uncertainty and unprecedented nature of the pandemic, celebrities and people alike have located ways in which they are able to capitalise off the hysteria surrounding COVID-19. Spreading misinformation as a means of legitimising ideological distaste in medial or governmental authority, monetising off vaccine conspiracy pages on social media by exploiting the popularity of the disinformation being published, or, exploiting celebrity influence by creating technology and claiming protective effectiveness, each demonstrates an ethical controversy. There is an evident commonality between each, with the ever-so salient pattern of disregard for the importance of keeping people informed of important medical information, illuminating the intention to utilise fake news as a means of benefiting off the uncertainty that the pandemic has placed upon the modern milieu. 

References:

Australian Government Department of Health. Therapeutic Goods Administration (2020). Pete Evans’ company fined for alleged COVID-19 advertising breaches. [online] Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Available at: https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/pete-evans-company-fined-alleged-covid-19-advertising-breaches [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Australian Government Department of Health. Therapeutic Goods Administration (2020). TGA issued a warning about illegal advertising relating to COVID-19. [online] Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Available at: https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/tga-issues-warning-about-illegal-advertising-relating-covid-19 [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Bertin, P., Nera, K. and Delouvée, S. (2020). Conspiracy Beliefs, Rejection of Vaccination, and Support for hydroxychloroquine: A Conceptual Replication-Extension in the COVID-19 Pandemic Context. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 11. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.565128/full [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Facebook.com. (2018). Community Standards. [online] Available at: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards/false_news [Accessed 22 May 2021].

Facebook.com. (2018). COVID-19 policy updates and protections | Facebook Help Centre. [online] Available at: https://www.facebook.com/help/230764881494641 [Accessed 22 May 2021].

Graham-Harrison, E., Jackson, J. and Heal, A. (2021). Facebook “is still making money from anti-vax sites.” [online] the Guardian. Available at:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/jan/30/facebook-letting-fake-news-spreaders-profit-investigators-claim [Accessed 22 May 2021].

Izzat Alsmadi and O’Brien, M.J. (2021). Misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes: What’s the difference? [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/misinformation-disinformation-and-hoaxes-whats-the-difference-158491 [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Keilman, J. (2020). Common COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theories and what experts say. [online] chicagotribune.com. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-covid-coronavirus-vaccine-conspiracy-myths-20201215-ubpqu26xarh75gksodmqhgnrp4-story.html [Accessed 21 May 2021].

Welch, A. (2021). How Conspiracy Theories Undermine People’s Trust in COVID-19 Vaccines. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-conspiracy-theories-undermine-peoples-trust-in-covid-19-vaccines [Accessed 25 May 2021].

‌Harvey, Ken (2020). COVID-19 Scams: Pete Evans BioCharger device -. [online] Medreach.com.au. Available at: https://www.medreach.com.au/covid-19-scams-pete-evans-biocharger-device/ [Accessed 24 May 2021].

‌Islam, M.S., Kamal, A.-H.M., Kabir, A., Southern, D.L., Khan, S.H., Hasan, S.M.M., Sarkar, T., Sharmin, S., Das, S., Roy, T., Harun, M.G.D., Chughtai, A.A., Homaira, N. and Seale, H. (2021). COVID-19 vaccine rumours and conspiracy theories: The need for cognitive inoculation against misinformation to improve vaccine adherence. PLOS ONE, [online] 16(5), p.e0251605. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0251605 [Accessed 22 May 2021].

‌Nyilasy, G. (2019). Fake news: When the dark side of persuasion takes over. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332935397_Fake_news_When_the_dark_side_of_persuasion_takes_over [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Purttill, J, (2021) Facebook promised to ban anti-vaxxers. But pages are still up and they’ve been selling t-shirts – ABC News. (2021). ABC News. [online] 18 Mar. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-03-19/facebook-misinformation-covid-19-coronavirus-anti-vaccine/100015890 [Accessed 25 May 2021].

TGA fines Pete Evans’s company $80,000 for repeated advertising breaches – ABC News. (2021). ABC News. [online] 25 May. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-25/pete-evans-company-fined-80000-for-repeated-breaches/100165090 [Accessed 4 Jun. 2021].

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