14 August 2020 12:58 AM

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GIRIJA SHIVAKUMAR | 24 APRIL, 2020

What Spreads Faster Than a Pandemic? Misinformation About It

How do we deal with it


Earlier last week, hundreds of migrant labourers gathered outside the Bandra station in Mumbai following an alleged Whatsapp rumor about trains operating between states. This happened hours after the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the nationwide lockdown that was initiated on March 25 to May 3.

The spread of misinformation on digital platforms isn’t new. But the panic around the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic has led the World Health Organization to declare this an “infodemic” - the exponential spread of false information about the crisis.

How big is the issue? Around 2 million tweets were put out that peddled false information about the coronavirus over three weeks when the virus began to spread outside China, the Washington Post cited an unpublished report from the US Global Engagement Center.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve heard almost every possible (uninformed) theory about the virus – it can’t survive in hot, tropical climates, eating lots of garlic will cure the virus, non-vegetarian foods can spread it, and that the virus was artificially created in a lab to incite a “biowar”.

What’s worse is the lack of effective communication from world leaders to counter the spread of such information.

Here’s what happened in India. When the Prime Minister urged for a “Janata curfew” before the lockdown and urged people to clap and ring bells to show their solidarity with the health workers, large groups of people took to the streets - a complete disregard to the social distancing norms that could help contain the virus. A couple of days later, the government announced the first lockdown with a few hours’ notice that led to panic buying across the country. Both messages were “symbolic” and lacked clarity about the situation.

In other instances, members of the political class have engaged in rumor-mongering. An Indian minister claimed on national television that cow dung and urine can be used to treat COVID-19 and various types of cancers. Media reports show that a government ministry published a medically inconsistent advisory on using arsenicum-30 as a prophylactic against COVID-19.

The same is true globally. In the UK, the chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a rather tone-deaf suggestion and called for "herd immunity" to the practised to protect the economy. In the United States, on the other hand, the ideals of liberalism continue to see a lockdown as “against the freewill” of the people. As the epidemic forces governments to introspect their moral obligations to its citizens, a pertinent question to ask is: Are governments giving the people access to enough information, across all levels? And, why is it important?

Historical research on other viruses like Zika and Ebola shows how the lack of access to accurate, reliable information disproportionately affects the poor, the vulnerable and at-risk communities. Studies of H1N1 show that older age, household income, level of education and homeownership are positively associated with greater knowledge about H1N1.

The other obvious consequence of poor communication is leaders’ perpetuating racist, xenophobic stereotypes and fear-mongering amongst an already-anxious public. Last month, as Indian authorities linked a rise in cases to a Muslim religious gathering, Twitter saw an overwhelming outburst of #CoronaJihad. The hashtag appeared nearly 300,000 times and potentially seen by 165 million people, according to a report by TIME citing data from Equality Labs, a digital human rights group.

Similarly, in the US, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus” that has translated into racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in the country.

It’s interesting how the idea of germs as “foreign” perpetuates stereotypes about immigrants or the “Eastern” world being unclean, and importing the virus. This manipulation of language also informs how we understand concepts and interpret information. The metaphor of “war”, for instance, endorsed by governments, the media and sometimes, even health officials, fails to see the crisis for what it is - a public health concern. On the one hand, it stigmatizes people with the “virus” as they’re seen as bodies that can’t just “fight off” this war. And, then, neglects the larger conversations on healthcare as a human right.

How do we deal with misinformation?

As the renowned historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari put it, the best way to deal with the situation is not isolation but with reliable, scientific information. We saw the disastrous impact of China trying to suppress late Dr. Li Wenliang when he tried to warn the world about the coronavirus.

What we need now is deliberate, purposive and effective communication from leaders. Studies on the H1N1 messaging show that media or public-health focused advertising campaigns not just better inform the public but also encourage the adoption of healthy behaviours amongst people. For instance, the United Kingdom’s official public health advertising campaign with commercials of tissues, hand sanitizers, and the messaging of “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it.” is a great example.

Closer home, states like Kerala and Maharashtra have been able to put together a holistic communication strategy by talking about the official numbers, public health messaging and informing people about the respective governments’ action plans through various media channels.

Crafting proactive, inclusive communication strategies is still possible. There needs to be a collaborative effort from different stakeholders to pull the weight.

First, governments need to ally with the traditional and digital media, especially vernacular and local press to create a unified message that reaches vulnerable and at-risk groups, like the poor, women, and children. The messaging also needs to be culture and language-specific. Did you know that Italian and Spanish-speaking users on Facebook were at a greater risk of misinformation than English-speaking ones?

Which brings us to the second point. Tech companies must put in place anti-misinformation policies at the earliest. A couple of days ago, Facebook announced that each time a user shared a hoax link, the platform would prompt them to visit a page by WHO on debunking popular COVID-19.

Third, independent research organizations and think tanks working to debunk bad science assume a bigger role. In India, Altnews.in and Avaaz, a human rights organization are tracking how misinformation spreads across the media and Facebook and what can be done to minimize the damaging impact.

Finally, now is the time for political leadership, globally, to be empathetic rather than dismissive. It’s only natural for people to operate from a place of fear amidst a pandemic. Dealing with the fear doesn’t need draconian measures to scare people into lockdown but a will to educate and build (scientific) trust in the citizens.

There are several ways this virus spreads, and misinformation is one of the most dangerous, and it’s imperative that we get better at breaking this chain of transmission.

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