Fighting fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has given us good cause to examine virality—and not in the medical sense.

We are roughly three months into the COVID-19 outbreak, and already Singapore has seen two instances of panic buying: once on 7th February, and a second time on 17th March. The latter resulted from misinformation: that supplies from Malaysia would somehow “stop” almost overnight.

Singapore is not unique in this respect, as similar scenes of survivalist-style hoarding have occurred in the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and other countries.

Across the globe, misinformation—in the form of deliberately fake news or misinterpretation—has caused an escalation in xenophobic tendencies. In the UK, Chinese students have suffered physical attacks due to the mistaken belief that the virus is linked to ethnicity.

In major US cities, Chinese restaurants are reporting sales drops, even as high as 80% in some areas. This is due to fake news that Chinese food carries the virus. It reached the point that the European Food Safety Authority had to put out a message attempting to debunk it.

This has also resulted in the politicisation of the issue. In the US, there is a vehement argument regarding the appropriateness of President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus.”

Outside of the social and economic consequences, there’s also the threat of fake medical news that can cause the virus to spread faster. In South Korea, for example, a new virus cluster formed when a religious group believed that saltwater sprays could kill the coronavirus. This led to them spraying salt water into the mouths of members and spreading the virus via the spray nozzle.

The brewing conflicts regarding COVID-19 should be a serious concern to businesses

The workplace does not exist in isolation. The social implications of COVID-19 can compound the effects of actual illness. Fake news can inhibit productivity, cause friction between employees, and erode trust.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 can also result in employee behaviours that are detrimental. These include difficulty in sleeping or concentrating, and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Friction can also arise from misunderstandings, such as an unwillingness to work with a colleague who has just been cleared from quarantine, or due to their ethnicity or nationality.

How businesses can combat fake news about COVID-19

Businesses can take steps to block the spread of fake news and misinformation. Effective methods include:

  • Setting up internal communications about COVID-19
  • Teaching and practising media literacy
  • Keeping COVID-19 information digestible
  • Creating two-way communications

1. Setting up internal communications about COVID-19

Internal communications can ensure employees are updated on relevant news and information. You can use it to explain the measures being implemented within and outside the company.

An example would be the Singapore government’s WhatsApp service for COVID-19. This service provides fact-checking, updates, and details on new measures being implemented.

In a work environment, similar information can be circulated by internal newsletters (digital or physical), regular email updates, or through workplace communication apps such as Slack.

2. Teaching and practicing media literacy

Companies should take the time to educate employees on media literacy.

Departments such as corporate communications, marketing communications, and public relations are likely to have professionals already trained in this area.

The simplest way to teach employees media literacy is to set up a simple verification process.

For example, all employees can be required to:

  • Verify any articles, messages, infographics, etc. by finding matching details on at least two to three trusted sources (see below) before sharing them. These other sources should be linked in the same message.
  • Check the source and its owners, and avoid sharing news if it seems designed to promote a particular end (e.g., alternative “wellness” companies selling “health” products, or websites with distinct political slants).
  • Avoid spreading retweets and reposts with no discernible point of origin.
  • Send correction messages whenever misleading or fake news has accidentally been shared. If possible, the previously shared information should be deleted or corrected immediately.

Here are some reliable sources for COVID-19 news:

3. Keeping COVID-19 information digestible

The Ministry of Health has prepared infographics on COVID-19 that can be freely used. You can consider placing these in strategic locations such as office pantries, toilets, and corridors with heavy traffic.

Updates on COVID-19 should be short and direct, making them easy to read. In general, try to keep text to 500 words or below. If more details are needed, you can consider creating a summary message, with a link to the full information.

For example, a 200-word Slack message can summarise new work-from-home measures, with a link to a company page that contains more details for different departments/personnel.

Your company’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) regarding COVID-19 should be presented in an infographic or a step-by-step format. Consider making these for the following situations:

  • Procedures following the verified infection of an employee
  • Protocol for daily cleaning and maintenance of equipment
  • New travel protocols for employees who must travel abroad or who are just returning
  • Department-specific procedures, such as plans for the temporary accommodation of employees during a lockdown (for the Human Resources department) or cancellation of services due to COVID-19 (for Customer Service representatives).

The simpler and clearer the instructions, the more likely employees are to follow them.

4. Creating two-way communications

Employees can feel frustrated if their concerns are not addressed. Do set up two-way communications so everyone feels heard.

A simple way to do this is to create a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page that is updated as the commonly raised questions change.

You can also set up a specific Slack channel, email thread, or intranet forum for open conversations with employees.

Another method is to appoint a representative from each department to communicate with management during the outbreak. This can address factors unique to each team.

For example, the sales staff may find it more difficult to adhere to some travel restrictions. Working from home may cause scheduling issues among drivers, maintenance workers, and other generally on-site personnel.

Perhaps most importantly, two-way communications can be used to address fake news and emerging rumours. Left unanswered, employee speculation and hearsay tend to spread fast.

Accurate and open communication helps to maintain morale 

COVID-19 creates a difficult business environment for many companies. Employees may already be contending with lower sales, fears of job security, and anxiety over their own health.

By ensuring accurate and open communications, you can alleviate any further stress and maintain morale during this crucial period. Hang in there—all this will get better.

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