Grapevine – April 24 – May 7, 2020

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Corona fake news

There is nothing new about fake news, especially in times of crisis. In the first world war, it was widely believed that the Germans were bayonetting babies to pass the time. In the second, many Brits believed that the Nazi radio propagandist William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) was accurately predicting the demise of Britain.

The Covid-19 crisis obviously is producing limitless opportunities on social media for nonsense to be published. Does this mean that people are hopelessly gullible? Not really. We are all titillated by overblown stories. So when you read on social media that you cannot catch the disease if you drink large quantities of boiling water (to stop the virus leaving your throat) or that Bill Gates financed the Wujan laboratory where the virus was being developed, you might well smile and move on. Hopefully!

A recent internet falsehood suggested that holding your breath for 10 seconds is a good test for the virus whilst another proclaimed that a product to clean fish tanks was a cure because it contained the wonder drug chloroquine. In truth, hundreds of millions of people have heard that chloroquine is a miracle drug but they are mostly skeptical pending the outcome of proper medical tests.

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Is vodka a cure?

In the vast majority of cases, people either ignore the supposed curative aspects of certain substances or use them to justify behavior they want to engage in anyway. Thus, if you are a chocoholic or an alcoholic, you are more likely than the rest of us to believe that consuming large numbers of Mars bars or swallowing vodka by the bottle will keep Covid-19 away from you. The best of luck!

A reliable clue to whether you are reading fake news circulating on WhatsApp and the rest is the claimed source. So when you read, “This comes from a relative who actually works in the Chinese laboratory” or “My father works in a New York hospital so he knows what he’s talking about,” you should already perceive that what follows is bunkum.

Corona has much in common with other crisis situations. The main issue is not that people gullibly accept whatever they are told, but that they fail to carry out recommendations from authorized sources such as their government. People collectively tend to mistrust politicians which is understandable as they do tend to lie unashamedly on a daily basis. So when Boris Johnson tells people there is no shortage of food in the supermarkets he starts a panic buying spree.



Who can you trust?

Panic reactions, such as stockpiling toilet paper or pasta, reflect a lack of trust in the promise of the leadership that supply lines are safe. There is also the worry that, even if you refrain from stockpiling, maybe your neighbours and friends will be unable to refrain. Stockpiling is perfectly rational when looked at from this point of view.

The most basic point about fake news is that, when evaluating information, we first compare what we are told or have read with our existing beliefs. Fake news takes an enormous advantage here by reinforcing our prejudices. If you are racist by nature, you are more likely to believe COVID-19 is a Chinese conspiracy to bankrupt the West. If you are a drinker, it’s comforting to think alcohol is a cure for whatever.

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Much of the above can be incorporated into a review of reactions in Thailand to the pandemic. Thais who don’t much care for farang believe the foreigners are responsible for Thais losing their jobs and wages. Foreigners who are sweating profusely whilst walking a short distance are especially drawn to the argument that strong sunlight kills the virus outright.

Fake news is said to have begun in ancient history. Roman pagans, in their campaign against Christianity, accused the followers of Jesus of drowning babies (baptism) and drinking blood (transubstantiation). Of course, we have come a long way since then. Or have we?