This op-ed was written by Dr Wajdi Zaghouani, an assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU).

Whenever a crisis arrives, you can be sure it will be followed quickly by a steady flow of false information.

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) situation is no exception. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) even called the false information relating to COVID-19 an ‘infodemic’, a term they defined as ‘an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not, making it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it’.

HBKU Fake News op-ed
Dr Wajdi Zaghouani

Fake news are usually created to generate an income based on web traffic and related paid advertisements. It should therefore come as no surprise that fake news relating to COVID-19 has increased exponentially recently.

We witnessed an increase of posts by humans and internet bots (a software application that runs automated scripts over the internet), which spread confusion and misinformation in social media during these difficult times.

During pandemic, the general population will be looking to reach a sense of security and have the situation under control. This attitude can sometimes lead to confusion with people starting to believe and sharing false stories of miracle cures to treat COVID-19. Every time they share such stories with their network and friends, it amplifies the effect of fake news.

The volume of information circulating during COVID-19 is huge and the impact on people who started believing the claims of new therapies, new drugs and folk medicine recipes to treat the virus, is real.

Fake news on health-related matters can be lethal, as in the case of the man who died after drinking a fish tank cleaner; or the 700 people who died in Iran after consuming high-concentrate alcohol believing false claims that it protects against coronavirus.

The automatic detection of bots and fake news is an active research topic, especially within the artificial intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) scientific community. Tools can reduce the extent of the problem without being able to stop it.

At the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at HBKU, we have a team working on fake news and bots detection, while the Arabic Language Technologies team at Qatar Computing Research Institute created the TANBIH tool, a news aggregator based on AI to limit fake news.

Various fact-checking websites are also available to help reduce the impact of fake news. These websites are generally run by journalists and other volunteers such as factcheck.org or  stopfake.org.

Fake news stock image 2

Furthermore, fake news based on photo manipulation can easily be checked using tools such as Google Image Reverse Search to find the original photo, for example. Some applications and websites such as buoyhealth.com offers a chat-bot using AI techniques to provide accurate and trusted answers on coronavirus based on protocols from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to reduce the need for searching coronavirus-related information that may lead the user to non-accurate or false information.

Internet companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook have committed to spread only legitimate information on COVID-19 using fact-checking software based on AI techniques and algorithms to tell which sources are truthful, which accounts are bots, and which words are sensational.

One way that these companies uses to reduce the spread of misinformation is by routing the users to trustworthy sources websites instead of pages promoting misinformation.

Luckily, trusted official governmental sources and several healthcare centres are available on social media and they provide reliable and accurate information. These sources usually have verified social media accounts.

Internationally, the social media accounts of WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and other similar organisations can be followed instead, to get accurate information relating to COVID-19.


Note: To help curb the spread of fake news and/or inaccurate information, Marhaba only publishes news/articles from reliable sources.