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Coronavirus State of Mind: How Misinformation in California Sparks Distrust in Institutions

April 24, 2020

A day after California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered all residents across the state to shelter in place, a Twitter user sent a Tweet claiming that “tanks have arrived in San Diego.” The video, viewed at least 2.5 million times, appears to show dozens of military tanks moving through the streets. Different versions of the same video emerged with captions such as “more tanks in San Diego” or “This can’t be going on in America. California’s Constitution prohibits #MartialLaw, doesn’t it?” The problem: the video is actually showing routine movement of military equipment.

RT, the Russian-funded media outlet formerly known as Russia Today, published and shared an article in Spanish purporting to show that people were lining up on both sides of the entrance to buy guns at a Pacifica gun store “amid the fear of coronavirus.”

But it is unclear from the video which store people are queueing for, given that there are several other stores in this street side shopping center, including a tax prep company and a few restaurants. The Tweet claims the gun shop is in Pacifica, when it is actually several miles away on the other side of the Junipero Serra Freeway in San Bruno. People tweeted comments in response, such as “They’re going to kill those who have Coronavirus” and “They want to shoot the virus to death. In reality it is a country indoctrinated with fear….”

Another video of a “livestream” from just a few hours after Governor Newsom ordered residents to shelter in place apparently shows a helicopter landing in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. This scene — actually from a military drill in February 2019 — garnered at least 512,000 views.

In our research at UC Berkeley that explored social media in the wake of COVID-19, we found these examples — the tanks in San Diego, the helicopter in L.A. and the Bay Area gun shop — and many more pieces of misleading content about California. Is this misinformation? Disinformation? And just how dangerous is it?

“This kind of process of ‘collective sense-making’ almost is hypertrophic in times of panic because people are scared, and information, whatever it is, whether it’s good or bad, has some type of calming effect,” Mr. Smith said.

First Draft News, an international journalism nonprofit, defines misinformation as info that is wrong — either factually or contextually — that the poster mistakenly believed was accurate, while disinformation is content that is circulated with the intention of misleading an audience to prompt a certain action or evoke an emotion.

Seeing misleading content on social media is certainly nothing new, not least since the 2016 U.S. election. But the COVID crisis, amplified by the public’s fears of the unknown, has heightened the danger of misinformation.

Information about the nature of the virus and how it affects people changes at a rapid pace and seemingly on a daily basis. Publishing updated guidance based on new research can create distrust in institutions that people have traditionally relied upon for accurate information.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the CDC did not recommend that asymptomatic people wear masks in public, but the federal agency issued new guidance on April 3 recommending that asymptomatic people wear non-medical grade masks in public.

“They say one day it’s like this, and the next day, they change their stance based off of new evidence,” Rory Smith, a New York-based research manager at First Draft News, said.

“In the eyes of many people, [public health experts] come off as kind of illegitimate. People lose trust in these institutions — they seem incompetent — whereas they’re doing the best possible job they can do taking into account the best evidence at the time,” Mr. Smith said.

Dr. Mark Dredze, Ph.D., an associate professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University who studies the intersection of social media and public health, said that the infrastructure that social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, have built sets the scene for fake content to proliferate on an unprecedented scale during the pandemic.

“Purposeful disinformation around health topics is not new, but the volume of this entire conversation is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Dr. Dredze said.

As shelter in place orders increasingly cover the rest of the country, much of the public debate has moved online, and social media has become a primary access point for many to get information — news and otherwise.

“This kind of process of ‘collective sense-making’ almost is hypertrophic in times of panic because people are scared, and information, whatever it is, whether it’s good or bad, has some type of calming effect,” Mr. Smith said.

Oftentimes, niche interest groups are accused of spreading targeted misinformation online. Such groups could be conspiracy theory groups or state actors pursuing a political outcome — and in the case of COVID-19, anti-vaccine skeptics.

But experts recently found that social media users don’t always have malicious intent when they share false content. A preliminary study on why people spread misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that people don’t necessarily think about the accuracy of a post when spreading false information. In fact, the study found, whether or not someone chooses to share a piece of content depends largely on their frame of mind.

“When you see content that is important and needs to be fact-checked, you’re just not in the right mode of thinking for that,” Dr. Gordon Pennycook, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study, said. Pennycook found that users were able to discern whether something is true or not when they were given a short treatment which prompted the participants to shift their mindsets from focusing on potential social reactions to whether the content is accurate or not.

Regardless of whether false or misleading content is spread accidentally or on purpose, it can have tangible implications for people’s lives and actions.

“Disinformation actually erodes trust in society and authority,” Dr. Dredze, the Hopkins professor, said, “and it could also make a public health campaign to vaccinate the population harder.”

Mr. Smith, the research manager at First Draft News, also noted that online support groups geared towards helping people suffering from debilitating anxiety or panic attacks touched off by the pandemic are popping up. There are people who are “handicapped by anxiety at this point,” Mr. Smith said. “I think when people are very panicked and stressed out, they’re not making rational decisions.”

“I think there’s pretty good science to back that up,” he said.

Brian Perlman researches human rights violations using open source and advanced digital forensics techniques at the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law. He is a second-year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Sophie Timmermann has worked for international organizations and NGOs across Europe doing outreach on international humanitarian law in the realm of migration and displacement. She is a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Michael Elsanadi is an open source investigator for the Syrian Archive as well as the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley focusing on human rights violations committed in the Middle East and North Africa. Michael is currently also a course assistant at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Production Staff & Crew

Brian Perlman ( 2020 )