Countering the Inevitable 'Infodemic'
Have you ever read any article, watched a clip, heard stories that sounded so real, yet you didn’t know whether it’s true or not?
We’re living in a world where global-wide use of social media play a huge role in information exchange. Corona virus is a new pandemic; an unsolved mystery. It is classified as a zoonotic virus that has taken a heavy toll on the human world. Originating from Wuhan in China, this virus has travelled across borders and has shaken the whole world. It is being transmitted via human to human interaction or through touching the contaminated surfaces. Scientists are still discovering about virus and working to find effective countermeasures for the new combating COVID-19. The virus is spreading faster, and with life-threatening potential, pushes people to create stories driven by different perceptions of the threat.
With this lack of information and high level of anxiety, people are keen to believe information that offers the slightest hint of a solution. Unfiltered informations, opinions, or just random thoughts of individuals, can be spread into the world in just about a click away. Various information and fake news across the globe are often wrapped in convincing small facts, which if misunderstood (or worse, misused) can spread fear and panic. The worst case scenario is that inaccurate information potentially harming its audience.
COVID-19, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has not only created a state of global emergency but also extreme levels of fear, desperation, and hopelessness among people around the world. Fuelling the deterioration is the widespread dissemination of rumours, fake news, bogus claims etc over the social media. While on one hand the virus continues to spread and infect hundreds of people on a daily basis, on the other hand, there also has been a substantial rise in the trend of fake news and social media hoax over different platforms, leading to what is known as an ‘Infodemic’.
It’s a term where an overwhelming number of unproven information is available, accessible and is everywhere. The infodemic spreads faster than the virus itself, often causing people to make poorly informed decisions. It becomes hard to distinguish between the truth, misinformation, and false information, as the fake and facts lines are often blurred.
The World Health Organization aims to fight against infodemic. The Head of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhonom Ghebreyesus has called infodemic dangerous and needs to be carefully addressed.
However, in the times such as these, ensuring the authenticity of the information is an utmost necessity and interestingly equally difficult. Firstly, COVID-19 is a new type of virus for epidemiologists and experts around the world. Secondly, Coronavirus has hit the world in the digital era. Today circulating information to the masses is indeed fast and easy but is hard to be controlled in democractic states. Furthermore, there is a lot of anxiety in people as the national governments are sharing data openly. To make it even worse, the conspiracy theories are stemming due to lack of accurate information. The reasons are manifold. Let us analyse the state of affairs of different South Asian countries one by one!
Case from India
Social media has made sharing of information to a wider audience easy. Unfortunately, what is widely circulated are either: myths, rumors, or fake news. The first and foremost incidence of widespread misinformation dissemination was when old traditional formulae and recipes of our grandmother’s secret medical cure were started to be served ‘hot’ on WhatsApp platter. Due to the novelty of the virus with no past cases to fall back upon, in the initial days, people believed many-a things that were later cleared out by the authorities. Lot of myths were busted with correct information provided by the WHO, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, amongst others.
Exercising control to ensure dissemination of authentic messages / information across various communication channel or social media platform is immensely tough in this digital era and the only way to guarantee that is to severe the access of social media through draconian measures, which would be truly uncalled for.
Authorities in India tried to handle the situation in their way. For instance, the government has launched a WhatsApp chatbot for sharing authentic information with the masses. The State governments have invoked the Epidemic Diseases act of 1897 and the Union government invoked Disaster Management Act of 2005. Under the DM Act, spreading rumors is a punishable offense and many people have been penalized in different States. The government of NCT of Delhi went a step ahead in its notification dated 12th March, 2020 and directed the sharing of ‘unauthenticated information or rumors’ regarding COVID-19 to be treated as punishable offense under The Delhi Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020. The Government also directed the public through the same regulatory guidelines to get prior clearance from the concerned authorities for disseminating information in print, electronic or social media.
However, even after all these measures in the country, ‘fake messages’are still flooding our inboxes.
Case from Malaysia
Social media, over the years,have managed to gain the same legitimacy as traditional news outlets over the world and Malaysia, is no different. Few years ago, when IM services were still not so popular, it used to be a challenge to find information, but now, we are in an era where information is everywhere and the challenge lies in analysing them; the challenge lies in separating the truth from the rumours, the fact from the hoaxes.
In case of COVID-19, information has been shared abundantly and ‘no’ thanks to the freely available internet and social platforms, everyone can contribute their narrative, irrespective of whether it makes sense or is just another peg of mockery leading to the ‘high’ of rumours amongst the population at large. The unprecedented pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented infodemic and with no exception, fake news has been spreading as quickly as the virus itself. With enough traction, such news could go viral and become true despite the facts
Now, the truth has become somewhat subjective and it is up to the reader to determine its legitimacy. For instance, when the Movement Restriction Order was announced on the 18th of March, some took the order lightly and compliance on the first day of enforcement was 60%.
Many efforts have been and is being made to combat the spread of fake news, but it seems that the fight begins with the reader.
Case from Nepal
People in Nepal have limited digital literacy with a high tendency of believing in any news they come across in social media making them highly vulnerable in such such times of global crisis. In developing countries like Nepal, spreading fake news has become quite prevalent, mostly motivated by vested interests. Large number of online portals exaggerating and sensationalizing unverified news to gain instant views and popularity among people without considering its severe impact have come into being.
As an example, a couple of days back, there was a notice issued by one of the Sub-Metropolitan City to use turmeric and garlic to prevent COVID-19 without any specific evidence that it can prevent the virus. Memes were claiming that gargling with warm water mixed with salt and vinegar removes the virus from the throat. Fake audio went viral on Facebook about a case being identified in one of the renowned hospitals of Kathmandu, that was later stated as false by the hospital. Prominent media channels also circulated a piece of news regarding a businessman from Birgunj testing positive that later turned out to be negative. Similar posts of people claiming to have identified cases in various hospitals inside Kathmandu Valley went viral on Facebook and Instagram that turned out to be fake.
Realizing the impact of such fake news among people, the Government of Nepal (GoN) have mandated ‘to take stem action in accordance with the prevalent laws if anyone indulges in dissemination of misleading and baseless information through media (including social networks) and creates confusion and panic among people’ in an official statement of the High Level Coordination Committee under the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense. The GoN have also been disseminating authentic information from their official Facebook page and Viber group. Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers — OPMCM — Nepal and National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA)have been disseminating daily updates from Facebook and the Ministry of Health and Population has created a Viber group to update citizens regularly. Furthermore, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working with the WHO and the GoN and have introduced a platform to report misinformation and fake news on the virus that are identified on social media platforms and also share authentic news. Respective authorities have also been identifying the people spreading fake news and charging them for unethical as well as a criminal offense.
While nations are battling to control the contagion of COVID-19 through various measures, controlling the spread of fake news and disseminating verified information should also be taken up as a priority especially in developing countries where literacy steered rationality is largely amiss.
Case from Indonesia
Health-related info is one of the most sensitive issues for misinformation, this can lead to bigger problems. Media plays a big role to entice people to check on their news and often using false alarm phrases as clickbait. Using words like “breaking news” or “don’t ignore this” and “spread the message”, fear mongering is used for profit. While some readers are diligent enough to read the entire article, others often use their own interpretation based on the title and make assumptions. For example, after a rapid number of growth of infected cases, the Indonesian government encouraged the community to implement social distancing and physical distancing.
With Ramadhan and Eid coming close, the government put a strong recommendation for the community to refrain from going back to their hometown during the pandemic season to contain the spread. This recommendation is being interpreted by some individuals as a lockdown, and they are afraid they won’t be able to meet their family during the celebrations. Opposite to what the government intends, rumors have sparked which is leading to increased movement among people. This is evident from the case of domestic workers, who have been seen asking their employers for an immediate break from work as that they wish to go to their hometown’s before government puts a lockdown.
In such times, people ideally should check and recheck the credible sources of information, released by public agencies such as government official pages, WHO, and other reliable sources. The Indonesian government has been actively combating fake news through the portal https://www.covid19.go.id/. Other credible source of information such as Kawal Covid are also launched to fight against the infodemics.