It says something about the state of the world that the Associated Press now puts out a weekly story summary entitled: "NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week".
The news agency describes it as "a round-up of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media."
Among the list of checked claims on Saturday was a fake assertion that the World Bank website shows Covid-19 test kits purchased by countries in 2017 and in 2018. The allegation is being used to push the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax.
The idea that a virus that has killed more than 916,000 people is a hoax is popular with some people who oppose mask-wearing. In a CNN report on a Republican rally in Michigan on Friday, a supporter was asked why he wasn't wearing a mask. He said: "There's no Covid. It's a fake pandemic created to destroy the United States of America."
The man referred to a conspiracy theory that "only less than 10,000 people died from Covid".
The US is at the sharp end of the war on reality. Vice-President Mike Pence cancelled a fundraiser in Montana after revelations it was hosted by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy, which has spread globally, including to New Zealand.
News website Politico cited emails to report that a former Trump campaign official who is now the spokesman for the US health department interfered with reports about the pandemic, saying they "would undermine the President's optimistic messages about the outbreak". Michael Caputo told Politico he was attempting to stymie "ulterior deep state motives in the bowels" of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here, Minister of Health Chris Hipkins has warned that "fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories threatened to derail" the country's Covid-19 response. He reminded the public that the coronavirus was "very, very real" and "very, very deadly", with no vaccine. At a rally in Auckland on Saturday against Covid-19 restrictions, few people in the crowd wore masks or practised social distancing.
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The virus has been a major battleground for dodgy claims, but there are many others.
For instance, US officials are having to douse misinformation as well as flames as people post unsubstantiated claims on social media that groups of arsonists from both ends of the political spectrum have been starting deadly wildfires. And the US intelligence community has warned that Russia is attempting to interfere in the November election.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen last week recalled former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway's reference to "alternative facts" early on in the Trump Administration. He wrote: "Alternative facts have been the diet of Americans for 44 months now. No democracy, built on accountability and law, can survive such an onslaught indefinitely."
The global war on reality can feel at times as though we are living through every dystopian drama and news satire ever dreamed up. And there's no end to it in sight. The conditions that allow conspiracy news to flourish are well set.
Mammoth social media platforms are powerful and entrenched. There's a fragmented online world where people can find information bubbles that cater to their biases rather than challenging them. Cynical operators can take advantage of the information overload and confusion for their own ends, stirring yet more distrust and cynicism.
New fact-checking sites have sprung up, and calling attention to distortions has become a standard feature for traditional news outlets. But the sheer volume of fakery swamps them all and there tends to be a time lag between a claim being made and then checked.
Our basic democratic system requires voters to be well-informed and aware of facts to function properly. People need to be educated on whether information they come across is credible or not and how to scale sources on reliability. There's a lot riding on it.
So far, the most alarming thing about this road trip has been the number of ordinary people-- on the sidewalk, in parking lots, at grocery stores, working the front desk at a hotel-- who believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon.— Charlotte Alter (@CharlotteAlter) September 10, 2020