The Fear of Pandemic: Why COVID-19 Hoaxes Run Rampant in Social Media

April 21, 2020 6:02 pm || By

If you are reading this article, either from your phone, PC, or tablet on the Internet during the self-quarantine imposed by the government, my educated guess is that you have read or heard of a hoax or some sort of fake news regarding the COVID-19. Be it about how some products can cure the infection, or maybe news about some neighbor’s neighbor died of the virus when you just saw him jogging with his mask on, we all have seen this before. For Indonesians, I don’t blame you. According to the social media reports, there are 160 million social media users in Indonesia[i].

The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, as of 8 April has noted 474 cases of hoaxes about coronavirus and has since tried to deal with it, including but not limited to asking the perpetrators to issue a public apology and reclarify the information they share as a hoax[ii]. And this issue is not limited to Indonesia alone. Fake news about the coronavirus has been spread across the global cyberspace to the point that social media giants such as Facebook had to limit coronavirus rumors and ban ads promoting sales of medical face masks (Scott, 2020)[iii].

Back in 2019, Bruce Schneier had written about how the next pandemic will be fought on two fronts: “The first is the one you immediately think about understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet”[iv]. And he had been right so far.

So here comes the million-dollar question: why do people spread hoaxes, especially in the time of crisis? Academic research concerning hoaxes in the time of crisis leaves much to be desired, but in regards to COVID-19, I will try to answer with existing statements.

Plenty of articles are discussing why fake news about coronavirus spread so virally, one particular article from Dr. Greg Nyilasy of the University of Melbourne discusses that there are two major types of false information, which are[v]:

  1. Disinformation—a deliberate falsehood created by design. This pertains to the xenophobic and racist remarks such as COVID-19 is created by a certain country to fight against another or how a certain group of ethnicity is more likely to spread COVID-19 than the others.
  2. Misinformation—an incorrect fact spread innocently as the truth. This pertains to ‘pro-health tips’ that doing A and B will cure the virus or completely misguided understandings of the disease such as ‘young people will not be infected,’ or ‘it’s just flu’.

In this writing, I will try to explain why people spread COVID-19 fake news in times of crisis. There is a concept in criminology, which I find can be an applicable answer with some adjustment called the fear of crime. The fear of crime refers to the fear of being a victim of crime as opposed to the actual probability of being a victim of crime[vi]. In this case, people may unknowingly become fearmongers themselves because they fear that they themselves and the people they love may become infected. Therefore, they overcompensate with sharing all the information they can about the virus without even checking if it is a hoax or not. I call this phenomenon: The Fear of Pandemics.

This fear of pandemics got further amplified as we stay in our homes and only has social media as a means of communicating outside of our immediate family. Jeff Hancock, a communication professor and founding director of Stanford Social Media Lab hailing from Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, states that:

…social media communication is very much reflecting our fears and concerns with the virus, and this should be no surprise. As people struggle to learn more about it, to cope with the disruptions, and seek to understand how they should deal with it, they are using social media to accomplish those goals and to express their fear and uncertainty.

And on the question of why people believe deceptive information online, Hancock stated that:

When people are fearful, they seek information to reduce uncertainty. This can lead people to accept information that may be wrong or deceptive because it helps them feel better, or allows them to place blame about what’s happening.[vii]

We are fearful and uncertain about this entire coronavirus ordeal, we fear that we or our closest may be infected, and this fear leads us to be a fear monger ourselves.

But now that we have understood that we may be subjected to this irrational behavior ourselves, we can start with not spreading news before we check them with reliable news sites.

Author: Irnasya Shafira
Editor: Treviliana Eka Putri

Read more article written by Irnasya Shafira


[i] Kemp, Simon. 2020. Digital 2020: Indonesia accessed from https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-indonesia on 10 April 2020 at 19:25 WIB

[ii] Cyberdrone Kominfo. 2020. Menkominfo: Sampai Hari Ini Ada 474 Isu Hoaks Corona Beredar di Masyarakat diakses dari https://www.indozone.id/news/vWsaeb/menkominfo-sampai-hari-ini-ada-474-isu-hoaks-corona-beredar-di-masyarakat on 10 April 2020 at 19:00 WIB

[iii] Scott, Mark. 2020. Social media giants are fighting fake news on coronavirus. It’s still spreading like wildfire. accessed from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/12/social-media-giants-are-fighting-coronavirus-fake-news-its-still-spreading-like-wildfire-127038 on 9 April 2020 at 21:00 WIB

[iv] Schneier, Bruce. 2019. We Must Prepare for the Next Pandemic: We’ll have to battle both the disease and the fake news. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/17/opinion/pandemic-fake-news.html accessed on 11 April 2020 at 19:32 WIB

[v] Nyilasy, Greg. 2020. Fake News in the Age of COVID-19. accessed from https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/fake-news-in-the-age-of-covid-19 on 10 April 2020 at 19:00 WIB

[vi] Farrall, S., Gray, E. and Jackson, J., 2007. Theorising the fear of crime: The cultural and social significance of insecurities about crime. Experience & expression in the fear of crime working paper, (5).

[vii] De Witte, Melissa. 2020. People’s uncertainty about the novel coronavirus can lead them to believe misinformation, says Stanford scholar accessed from https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/16/fake-news-coronavirus-appealing-avoid/ on 10 April 2020 at 18:00 WIB