Covid-19 and coronavirus could easily be the words of the year. Such has been the devastation and panic caused by the dreaded virus across the world. So much that the WHO had to term this outbreak a pandemic. With origins in the sleepy town of Wuhan, this virus has travelled across the world, infecting many and paralysing the lives of many more. Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has spread to every continent except Antarctica.
The worrisome situation is not just because of the virus, but the ease at which it spreads and the very fact that we don’t know much about the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) is yet to confirm a cure for this pandemic. The mortality rates notwithstanding, the fact that the disease remains incurable as of now throws shudders down the spines of people across the globe and the resultant panic is only understandable. The existing treatments are based on the kind of care given for influenza (seasonal flu) and other severe respiratory illnesses. The best one can do in such a situation is to hope that some magic cure exists for the dreaded disease and some doctor or scientist somewhere in the world has found a vaccine to treat the same. Further, as countries go into the lockdown mode, paralysing the economies and keeping people out of food and shelter for days together, people really hope for some end to this pandemic.
As Rudy Giuliani said, ‘hope is not a strategy’. But despair makes hope the only option for many – at least as the only option in sight. There comes the menace of infodemic. A barrage of information on the virus has deluged the traditional and social media space. The WHO warns that societies around the world are facing an “infodemic”—an “overabundance” of information that makes it difficult for people to identify truthful and trustworthy sources from false or misleading ones. Amidst the massive lockdowns and ever-increasing panic, social media is more important than ever. With quarantines in place, Facebook, Twitter, and other services are taking on an entirely new valence as the foundation for our everyday lives. Social media today is a crucial conduit between families, friends, office, and a medium of entertainment. As #SocialDistancing trends, it is quite natural that social media has to shoulder the burden of the world’s information needs. People are glued to their WhatsApp screens hoping for news regarding the coronavirus. This is a perfect setting for the spread of disinformation. Desperate and gullible population waiting for information – it can’t get better. There is an overabundance of information – both correct and incorrect ones making it difficult to identify the right ones from the wrong ones – so much that the WHO has said it was confronting an “infodemic.” India is a mobile-first nation. Most of rural India reads the news on smartphones rather than newspapers. WhatsApp has revolutionised the way people view and share the news. WhatsApp groups have now become a popular medium for people to consume news content.
Social media, with its ability to amplify a message through endorsements and forwards, gives one the tool to reach a potential audience without needing substantial resources or access to expensive media technology. One can become a broadcaster at virtually no cost. Social media provides the tools for an information cascade. This new power structure enables individuals to distribute large volumes of disinformation or fake news. Traditional news had quality assurance, and editorial controls before publication and most of the content was created by professionals. The Internet provides a vast array of services where content can be published and spread. Unlike the traditional process, there are no editorial controls or quality-assurances.
There is a paradigm shift from the 20th-century ecosystem dominated by print and broadcast media to an increasingly digital, mobile and social media dominated ecosystem. The lack of filtering on online platforms negates any authentication mechanisms. Social media not only changed the methods of news distribution but also changed the age-old beliefs of how news should look. Now, a tweet, which at most is 140 characters long, is considered a piece of news and true particularly if it comes from a person in authority. Humans are vulnerable to this manipulation often forwarding or sharing the article.
In their book ‘The Knowledge Illusion’, Sloman and Fernbach explain that much of our decision-making is not based on individual rationality but from shared group-level narratives. This gets accentuated during times of despair and any news which speaks about a cure is believed. There have been stories floating around saying that eating garlic can prevent getting an infection from the coronavirus. The WHO, however, has clarified that while garlic has some antimicrobial properties, there is no evidence that garlic has indeed protected people from the new coronavirus. The issue is twofold: one, the people will believe that they have eaten garlic and therefore the virus can’t affect them, thereby exposing them to the vagaries of the virus; two, they will further share the information to at least a dozen other hopefuls thereby increasing the spread of both the disease and the disinformation. Disinformation can push someone to extreme despair too – forcing them to take extreme steps – including taking one’s life. A 23-year-old man, suspected to be a patient of novel coronavirus infection, committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi a week back. Some of the videos and messages include unverified information targeting certain communities for the spread of the virus. Conspiracy theorists even had 5G technology blamed for the spread of the virus. A rumour of a lockdown of essential commodities resulted in people hoarding the essential supplies.
The pandemic has taught us to wash our hands clean – the importance of personal hygiene. But who will teach us information hygiene – to week out the wrong and misleading information from the barrage that we get every day on our 5-inch screens? The conversation about information hygiene must happen in society and this is an opportune moment. There is a tipping point – as Malcom Gladwell noted – for everything. This may be the tipping point to learn information hygiene and to start the war against fake news. We are not doing the society any good by an unassuming click on our phones to forward the conspiracy theories and magic cures during the times of this pandemic. One may have to face legal troubles also for forwarding fake messages over social media or otherwise.
Information hygiene includes verifying the news that one gets, checking whether it is from an authentic source, double checking with some fact checking website, asking a doctor or an expert and the list is not exhaustive. If you are passing something on, cite its source. If you are reading something, put on your thinking hats – check the source, and ask for the source if there isn’t one. Just like washing your hands, these are always good practices to follow, but particularly important in an emergency. The idea is to verify and authenticate the news before believing and more so sharing the same.
Nevertheless, it is heartening to see the response of the civil society, government and the technology companies in trying to dispel disinformation regarding the coronavirus. Various fact checking websites like Boom Live and Alt News, are continuously debunking stories and conspiracy theories and conspicuously posting them on various social media platforms. WHO has started their own myth busting page – “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters”, debunking the myths doing rounds in social media and educating the public with authentic and verified information. The social media platforms – for a welcome change – have taken the lead in busting the myths about coronavirus. Google has created an SOS Alert on COVID-19 for the six official UN languages and is expanding in other languages to make sure the first information the public receives is from the WHO website and the social media accounts of the WHO. Facebook has promised to ban ads that promise “cures” for the Covid-19 virus. Twitter says it will be applying a new broader definition of harm to address content that “goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information” to counter misinformation. The Press Information Bureau has set up a portal for fact-checking issues related with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it will receive messages by email and send its response in quick time. The PIB also releases a daily bulletin at 8 pm every day to inform the Centre’s decisions and developments and progress on the deadly COVID-19. This is in line with the Supreme Court directive that a daily bulletin system with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic be made active within 24 hours by the government through all media avenues, including social media and forums to clear people’s doubts and to check fake news.
But, disinformation still manages to sneak through. We need to accelerate our collaborative efforts to get over with this infodemic contagion. It is time we seriously think about investing in training people to understand the concept of information hygiene.
(Kiran S is an officer of the Indian Police Service. Views are personal)