TiL Worldwide

The Coronavirus “Infodemic”

Reading time: 4 minutes

Caution: Did you come across any of the following messages within the last 14 days?

  • The US troops had intentionally planted Coronavirus in Wuhan in December 2019 or there was an intentional spread of the virus by the Chinese government. (detailed Whatsapp thread with links to some articles from independent news outlets)
  • Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte pictured in tears, captioned with an emotional cry for help for the crisis in Italy. (screenshot of a tweet)
  • Coronavirus can be defeated with hot water, vaping, garlic or any other home remedy.
  • Big Pharmaceuticals in the western world have the vaccine to counteract Coronavirus but are withholding it out of corporate greed. (Independent news outlets)
  • A “friend of friend” in the UN, military or some other established international organisation has overheard discussion about a world-wide or country specific lockdown within the next 48 hours. (another Whatsapp thread)

If you have contracted 2 or more of the following types of information, I regret to tell you that the Infodemic has acquired another case. The spread of coronavirus has led to the surge of an accompanying digital pandemic, or “Infodemic”, as coined by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – director general of the WHO.

With the spread of Coronavirus, the walls of our homes under quarantine have been infiltrated by a flood of information. Unfortunately, the sharks of misinformation and fake news lurk swim amongst the waves of information we are stranded in. It is tempting to find some appeal or merit to these sources of misinformation; however, it is crucial to step back and question why these controversial, anthologised, news appeal to you or loved ones.

Some notable causes of the spread of the Infodemic, some of which are noted in the work of Asa Wikfross’s “Knowledge Resistance: Causes, Consequences, and Cures”, are:

  • Personal identification with the fear or anger in society:
    Wikfross notes that the stronger the political leaning or intellectual arrogance of an individual, the more likely they are to protect one’s identity by cherry picking information that is in line with their personal beliefs. Human beings are susceptible to applying conformation bias (confirm what one believes is true) and critical thinking skills when they sense that an emotional facet of their identity is under threat. In relation to the surge in fake news, certain sentiments held by sections of society – frustration directed at mismanagement by governmental authorities or underestimating the probability of contracting Coronavirus – are supported by articles or messages of the above-mentioned types;
  • The social nature of knowledge:
    The spread of knowledge can be understood as a social act. As noted by Deirdre McCloskey in “The Rhetoric of Economics”, the nature of scientific claims (distinct from scientific methodology) is based on a rhetoric; the social context of a scientific claim, affects how and whether the truth of the claim is taken up by anyone. The clearest visualisation of the social nature of scientific claims can be seen in academic research papers or non-fiction books with references to support the validity of one’s argument, as formerly proposed by someone else. Following on from this, we can see that each scientific claim has an element of persuasion to it and once trust in the claim has been established, it can easily be accepted and shared.

    In the uncertain times that we live in, there is a general lack of trust. Survey polls by NPR/PBS NewsHour conducted across America have shown that 60% of Americans (irrespective of political leanings) place little to no trust in the Trump Administration’s handling of the situation and 47% place not very much trust in the mainstream media (March 17, 2020). Wikfross builds on this with her work, stating that when trust is undermined in society, so is knowledge. Distrust yields doubt and this growing demand of doubt is what suppliers of fake news and misinformation profit off in the Infodemic we live in.
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Though the implications of submitting to the Infodemic are grave, the precautions you and your loved ones can take are simple yet effective. A positive uptick in control measures can be observed, what with the WHO collaborating with WhatsApp and Facebook to spread their verified public service announcements more efficiently. Additionally, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have all increased content control checks, to weed out as much misinformation as possible.

The most effective “treatments” and precautions you can take to protect yourself from the Infodemic are as follows:

  • Use fact-checking websites and follow the WHO website for updates: AP fact check and FullFact are both reliable services for detecting fake-news websites. All relevant updates concerning Coronavirus can be found on the WHO website and is the most reliable and comprehensive source of information at this time.
  • Do your homework and confirm the sources of the news you are reading: To recreate a social context of trust, fake news outlets have increasingly turned to Whatsapp to spread misinformation. The format of a direct message from trusted friends or family members makes it hard to dismiss newly shared information as false. In this case, pay attention to the supposed source of the information. Mentions of a health or educational establishment, can be checked for information by referring to their official websites. If a source is more dubious, such as “friend of a friend” it is best to disregard such information. Similarly, if social media account handles are mentioned, it is best to verify the handles on the respective platform they originate from.
  • Wait for your state/local authority to announce any upcoming changes or restrictions: Rushing outdoors or panic buying based on “discussions of foreclosures of public services and shops” circulating online could have serious implications concerning the spread of the virus, not just to yourself but to those who are more vulnerable to the virus. Unless instructed by your local governmental authority, stay indoors as much as possible and schedule your time outside based on necessity.
  • Give yourself a break from social media: Social distancing during quarantine can make us especially reliant on social media to provide a sense of connection to the rest of the world. However, too much time spent switching between different social networking apps makes it easier for a piece of false news to fall amongst post about your familiar favourites, slipping through your armour of trust. Social distancing does not mean that you are alone. Make some time to schedule video calls with friends and relatives and spend more time with your family if your living condition permits it.
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Above all, the most important virtue at this moment is trust – in ourselves and the future. The Coronavirus spreads through the actions of people, and misinformation only seeks to steer you off the right path of action. As uncertain and unfavourable things may seem at this point, we can’t let ourselves assume the worst. This will only lead to irresponsible behaviour that could fast track the road to the worst possible outcome of the Coronavirus. We must each do our part in carefully assessing the situation and information at hand and act with responsibility, with the hope that together we can overcome these hard times.

Author profile

3rd year BSc Economic and Social Sciences.
I write about politics, society, psychology and anything in between.

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