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Coronavirus fake news and conspiracies

The coronavirus pandemic, which is believed to have started in 2019, has spread to “nearly every country in the world” (Newey,2020:online) since it first emerged in China at the beginning of the year. Since them, due to the rising levels of anxiety and uncertainty, fake news on the coronavirus has been on the rife on many social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. Such fake news, which includes treating methods, half-truth rumours and conspiracies, although lack scientific evidence, among the public have caused fear, anger and cynicism. Thus, in this essay language is analysed to see how coronavirus fake news has gained legitimation.

Fake news on the coronavirus pandemic has and continues to proliferate on social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. With many messages offering unverified and false information regarding ways to test and treat the coronavirus. One of the most popular examples of this included the self-detecting advice, which circulated around WhatsApp encouraging people to follow a simple at-home breathing exercise, to detect the virus. While viewed as highly threatening and dangerous by many health officials, among the general public such advice continued to “spread at rapid speed” (Belcker,2020:online). Gaining legitimacy, as text producers continually used the term ‘experts’ in the form of verbal process clauses, for example, “experts suggest doing this” and “doctors say”. By providing “expert authorization” (Leeuwen,2012:p94), through the nouns “experts” and “doctors, text producers reassured validation in the self-detecting advice without needing to give any form of reasoning. As the nouns “expert” and “doctors”, provide enough justification, given their status and role in society and the health care institution. Through this, text receivers blindly adhere to the coronavirus recommendation, as the nouns “experts” and “doctors”, offer enough security for the information to be seen as true.

Additionally, as the syntactical structure of the verbal process clauses “expert suggests” and “doctors say”, have been typically used throughout history by many newspapers and online websites when providing legitimate information on various viruses and illnesses. Verbal process clauses from this perspective, also legitimise fake advice, as genuine historical uses and professional associations with the clauses, in effect increases the overall realism and credibility of the fake advice. This, nonetheless, prevents text receivers from questioning the fake information, as the line between fake and real news, in this case, becomes harder to distinguish. This form of blurring between fake and real news, however, according to many theorists, is largely attributed to the “rise of new media” (Kimiz,2020:p204), which has eliminated traditional filter systems, enabling user-generated content to be produced at a much “faster and wider scale” (Moens,2014:p9). Through this, individuals become capable of manufacturing false information, with many people, outside academic environments, carefully constructing messages using key language techniques, such as “experts suggest” “doctors say”, in order to legitimise false information.

Nonetheless, with the rise of new technology such as AI and machine learning advancements, creating fake information no longer is restricted to written communication, however, can also occur in visual form. With many individuals using the technique of “deep faking” (Andrews,2019:online), whereby high-tech computers are used to produce completely false yet realistic videos, to provide seemingly legitimate information. Though, while such extreme measures continue to remain popular in the age of new technology, other forms of visual misinformation can also include text producers taking “videos out of context” (Posetti,2018:p46). Which during the coronavirus pandemic became highly popular with many social media platforms wrongly captioning videos to mislead audiences. On Facebook, this became prominent, as the reused video of patients lying in a nondescript hospital floor began circulating, with the caption “The hospitals are literary filled with patients. Shortages of beds leaves people lying down on the floor”. Through the ambiguous nature of the caption, this video was seen taken out of context by many social media users, who used the footage as evidence of different countries “inability to cope with coronavirus” (Scott,2020:online). Thus, although found to be a compilation of clips from two Spanish hospitals “in Madrid during mid-March” (Milne,2020:online), captions as well as the edited video, in this case, enabled social media users to deceive text receivers from around the world. Additionally, as the verbs “leave” and  “lying”, presupposes a form of inability and ignorance in the hospital, text producers, from this perspective, also take the footage out of context, as captions used aim to exaggerate and intensify the situation. Thus, evidence, reinforces the different ways in which coronavirus fake news can be provided, as here misleading information was gained, as deceptive captions used to “anchor” the meaning on the video, in effect “misguided readers” (Barthes,2001:p8) interpretation of the event.

Additionally, other types of coronavirus fake news also include conspiracy theories which have and continues to provide the public with various reasoning and explanations behind the coronavirus. One of the most popular examples of this includes the 5G conspiracy theory, which circulated around Facebook claiming the idea that “5G is harmful and linked to Covid-19” (Rahman,2020:online). Such conspiracy theories, according to many academics, is largely generated by the high levels of uncertainty, which in turn leads to people seeking information about the threat (Naughton,2020:online). Thus, from this perspective, 5G conspiracy theories are driven as humans try to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. However, although conspiracy theories exist part of stigmatised knowledge, that is, “knowledge claims that lack institutional validation” (Barkun,2016:p2), mainstreaming the fringe, in this case, is achieved as the development of the internet, enables fringe ideas to eventually migrate into mainstream media. Thus, here as social media allows individuals to spread multiple re-posting online, legitimisation for the 5G conspiracy theory is gained.

Nonetheless, other conspiracy theories also include the immigration theory, which became popularized by many right-wing extremists groups. Blaming vulnerable communities – “migrants, refugees, Jews or Muslims – for the spread of coronavirus” (Scott,2020:online). Such conspiracies, which aim to scapegoat vulnerable groups, according to theorist Althusser, is a powerful political tool used to keep the ruling class in power. Thus, from this perspective, conspiracy theories exist part of the ideological state apparatus used to subtly reproduced class inequality. However, this blame on minority groups could also be attributed, as far-right politicians continue to frame the coronavirus in terms of “war and combat” (Wise,2020:online). And also use metaphors, in order to associate the virus with a specific nationality, For example, Donald trump referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” (Tamkin,2020:online). Through this, language used allows blame to fall on foreign individuals, as war/combat metaphors, as well as labelling, initiate an in-and out-group. Thus, here conspiracy theories are driven, as the language used by ring wing politicians, aids to legitimise conspiracies.

Overall, evidence reinforces how coronavirus fake news has become legitimised attributed to the language used by text producers. In term of coronavirus fake treating advice, evidence shows how text producers used specific verbal process clauses, in order to enhance the realism of the fake news. However, with the rise of new media, fake news also takes place as individual anchor videos with misleading text. Additionally, other types of fake news also included conspiracy theories, which gained legitimisation due to specific language techniques used by far-right politicians. Thus, although viewed as highly dangerous, fake news continues to spread due to legitimisation techniques.


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