Clinical Psychologist Dr Katija Khan

Fake news—it is a term that has become well known in today’s social media-centred society.

With information always at the tip of your fingers, it is easy to be misled by stories that distort the facts or are completely made up.

And while the novel coronavirus (COVID19) is a very serious topic, it has also become a victim to fake news as almost daily messages and voice notes are circulated, claiming the virus is not only in T&T but it is being covered up by the Government.

Although Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh continues to maintain that there are no COVID19 cases in T&T, there seems to be no end to the slew of messages claiming otherwise.

Several weeks ago, a voice note was circulated on WhatsApp, with a man alleging that patients were “dropping like flies” at the San Fernando General Hospital from the virus.

“My aunt is a doctor and she based San Fernando hospital and she just send me that message, what she say right now, the government just keeping it under low but the coronavirus thing, it hit Trinidad big time and she say just now she will make a small video to send for me when she get a chance, it have patients dropping in the hospital like fly,” he said.

The one-minute-long voice note was widely circulated and conspiracy theories about a state cover-up quickly followed.

The information in the voice note was not true.

Guardian Media spoke to clinical psychologist Dr Katija Khan who said those who create fake news stories often do it for the five minutes of fame it brings.

“There are some people who want the popularity of the likes and the shares and they are not concerned about the impact because they think it’s harmless and they get a kick out of it,” Khan said during an interview last week.

She said the ingredients to a fake news story include quoting an anonymous authority figure- like the man in the voice note claiming to have gotten his information from a doctor—to ensure that those may who not be discerning enough are quickly convinced it is true.

“If the average person says something, you may be less likely to believe it than if you say a doctor said so, or a politician said so, or I heard this from an authority figure. Insinuating that it may have come from a credible source makes it more likely that people are going to believe its true,” Khan said.

These stories also appeal to an individual’s base emotions- in this case, fear and suspicion.

“By also suggesting there is some kind of conspiracy also appeals to our base emotions so it would make messages of that kind very enticing so people not only want to hear about it, they feel the need to inform their friends. They share without thinking because they think, better safe than sorry, let me share this, when in fact they are perpetuating this misinformation which can be harmful.”

Khan said the proliferation of fake news makes it more difficult for the public to believe credible sources as they are fearful of being misled by those they think are trying to conceal something from them.

She is appealing to citizens to take every message not only with a grain of salt but with a quick Google search.

“I want to encourage people to step back from it and the emotions it is influencing and say let me check a more credible source, are any of the newspapers reporting it? Are any of the health agencies carrying it? Even look internationally and see what they are saying so we have to try to get a variety of sources and not try to rely on one, usually anonymous source. We have to encourage people to utilise more critical thinking skills, this is one area where it is okay to say, “Who is this doctor that they are speaking about? Where did he get his information from?”