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Expert panel: Pandemic shows fighting fake news must be joint effort

Santiago, Jun 3 (efe-epa).- Announcements on the social and media networks promoting ingesting chlorine to cure Covid-19 have shown that “fake news” can be deadly and that a joint effort by the media, viewers and institutions is needed to combat it, analysts said Wednesday at a virtual forum.

In a digital conference organized by the European Union delegation in Chile and Agencia EFE, Spain’s international news agency – titled “Fake News: How to fight disinformation; Experiences in Chile and the European Union ” – experts analyzed how to deal with news hoaxes in the current situation where the coronavirus pandemic has added a huge amount of uncertainty.

“Disinformation is a phenomenon that puts democracy, governability, security and even public health at risk, as we have seen now during the pandemic,” said the European bloc’s ambassador in Chile, Stella Zervoudaki.

“The coronavirus is a very flagrant example of how disinformation can even cause death,” she said, adding that the EU has identified at least 3,000 items of fake and toxic news regarding Covid-19 since the start of the health emergency.

Among those items are some that say that the use of masks causes a lack of oxygen in the human body, that sanitary napkins serve to strengthen the coronavirus, that Microsoft CEO Bill Gates wants to control mankind with implanted microchips and that Nobel Prize winner in Medicine Tasuku Honjo says that the virus was created by man.

The pandemic, in which some 6.3 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and 380,000 have died worldwide, has become one of the big challenges for media devoted to truth-telling and responsible reporting.

“Disinformation has no borders,” warned Desiree Garcia, a journalist and the director of EFE Verifica, the Spanish news agency’s data verification service.

For Laura del Rio, a journalist with Spain’s Web page and coordinator of the hoax or fake news department, the big problem is that fake news doesn’t always take the form of news stories and can range from a Whatsapp audio clip to a “meme” containing a politician’s statement, all of which makes it very difficult to trace it.

“Whatsapp is a black hole. We can trace things on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but we can’t know what’s going on in the Whatsapp conversations. The only way to know it is for our community to tell us,” said Del Rio, whose Web site has received about 1,000 alerts from its viewers regarding fake news during the pandemic.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It’s as old as human beings, but it has certainly expanded in recent years with the rise of the Internet and the social networks.

Cecilia Derpich, a reporter and assistant research editor for Chilean daily El Mercurio in its El Poligrafo section, said that these times of uncertainty and fear provide a favorable environment and enable disinformation “to spread more quickly.”

The same thing occurred last year, she said, when the wave of protests against inequality erupted in Chile – unrest during which about 30 people were killed and thousands injured – spurring the creation of at least 19 “fact checking” operations in the country.

Garcia said that the boom in fake news is also due to the loss of confidence in the traditional media and to the migration of many viewers to other sources of information, above all young people.

“A pending task for the traditional media is to get to the young public. It must adapt the message to the demand, a solid message with journalistic practices that we’ve always applied but that are attractive” to younger users, she recommended.

Education, Del Rio said, is the other big strategy to raise public awareness and create a critical mass of people who don’t believe everything that comes across the social networks.

“We fact checkers and readers are doing that, but also it must come from the institutions, who are giving courses in schools and to older people” because fake news affects everyone, she said.

Although many countries are considering the option of legislating against certain aspects of online hoaxes, the three panelists agreed that this is a very complicated debate that could collide with the right to freedom of expression and that self-regulation is a better option.

“The fight against disinformation strengthens freedom of expression, it doesn’t diminish it,” the EU ambassador said.


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