Infodemic: A by-product of the pandemic

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The only good thing about a pandemic is that their potential harm is eventually acknowledged, assessed and then combated with all possible means. Such united and focused effort at a global scale is what has seen tides turn in the past and we hope to see the same with this coronavirus. 

But the worst thing about pandemics is that they bring along a number of social and moral issues that are left totally unattended or given very little attention. 

One such socio-moral evil that has seen a spike directly proportional to that of the disease itself is misinformation.

Misinformation, as the name suggests, is the spread of false information. This moral pandemic needs to be addressed, before things get out of hand (if they haven’t already, that is). 

With roots in irresponsible actions of individuals and having stemmed into social media groups, this tree has had branches spread into international politics. Society in general has always become ever more vulnerable to this moral vice in crises like the one we are going through these days – a global state of emergency.

Let us take a look at the “chain of transmission” of this virus of misinformation; very aptly is this process called “going viral”.

So we start from the very basic level. A member of the Jamaat fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital. He was quite a well-known figure in the Jamaat. The type of WhatsApp messages that began pouring in started off with enquiring what had happened, how it happened, whether it was Covid-19, and, very sadly, some even seemed inquisitive about the prognosis. 

This all started off with a single message from an individual asked in a group, then sent out in further groups and then in even more groups. So an individual’s question kept getting multiplied every time and ended up transmitted globally in a very large number of groups. 

Then started an even stranger series of messages, where everyone in all of those groups seemed to be pooling in any information that they had. The gentleman who had had a heart attack, ended up being “diagnosed” with a variety of illnesses and conditions by a variety of people in a variety of worldwide groups. 

This speculation went on for a few days and then someone, somewhere, suddenly got bored and decided to take it to the next level. Hence, a large number of people woke up one morning to see in their WhatsApp groups the gentleman’s photo with the announcement that he had passed away. 

This started off another discussion – whether the news was true or false. The two camps that emerged – one saying it was true and the other saying that it wasn’t – had only begun to convince each other that the news of his demise spread in social media groups again. 

This time, the news of his passing away was accurate, but the previous episode of misinformation left this correct information in shadows of mistrust and the silly discussions started to roll out again.

Imagine the agony and distress of the family as they saw all this happen; all in a moment when they required support and consolation and not a bout of this “infodemic”.

With the news of the gentleman’s demise confirmed started a whole new series of instructions about how to pay respects and about funeral arrangements. Random individuals decided to take on the self-styled roles of undertakers, funeral directors and marshals as they continued to spread baseless instructions. Random laymen turned into jurists and voluntarily issued fatwas as to how funerals should be conducted in the state of a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the family of the deceased continued to endure the pain of what was seen by others as a mere game of ping-pong, with all the wrong type of information being hurled through the catapult of WhatsApp and other such platforms.

This is a time of great uncertainty. Conspiracy theorists have taken full advantage of this pandemic of the virus and presented the slightest inklings of their hearts and minds as thoroughly researched and proven facts. “It is Russia that is behind all of this”; “America released this virus in China”; “China sent it back to America”; “It’s just a flu and the rest is Western propaganda”; Vaccinations are already there, but ‘they’ are not letting it slip out”.

The roots of 22fake news22 from UNESCOs World Trends Report 1
The roots of “fake news” from UNESCO’s World Trends Report

At a time when the general public was in an extremely fragile mental state, ready to believe anything, they deserved to be allowed to focus on the instructions that they were being given in terms of precautionary measures from credible sources.

Misinformation played a big role in delaying the public taking expert advice seriously and responding in a more responsible and cautious manner.

At the onset of the outbreak, some radio and television channels played the unbecoming role of fearmongers, leaving aside the role expected of them as information providers. With something so new to everyone, including virologists and epidemiologists, some radio presenters posed to be great experts and painted the bleakest and scariest pictures, with fewer facts and an abundance of fantasy. 

Then started pouring in facts – figures of people infected, those who had been put on ventilators, the shortage of ventilators, personal protection equipment becoming scarce, less trained staff in ICUs than required and, sadly, the numbers of those who had succumbed to the coronavirus and died. 

Television and radio channels now started running after facts, but only those facts that could keep the fear alive and fuel the bottomless appetite of revenue. The sad thing is that channels that have no commercial agendas – at the prima facie at least – sided with fear-mongering tactics.

What was never or hardly ever mentioned was the number of people who had recovered after contracting the virus and walked back home on their own two feet. These were in far greater numbers than those who lay battling the virus in ICUs or those who had unfortunately died.

Was it to keep the masses in a state of fear so they didn’t lift their foot off the pedal? Well, even then, it was their right to be shown the light at the end of the tunnel to maintain their ability to pull through these utterly difficult and sorrowful days.

Then came the time when the figures of those who had recovered started to appear, albeit briefly, on channels that were slightly more on the sensible end of the spectrum. 

But by then, misinformation, like the virus itself, had undergone mutation and taken a new shape. It had now incubated itself in groups that started blaming 5G networks for the spread of coronavirus. It now thrived on groups that tried to prove that the good news from China was not really as good as it sounded; that the numbers were not being reported fairly. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its peak in many countries. Some seem to have reached their peak, some are seeing the curves of bad news plateauing and for a very few, it now seems to be heading back to the bottom axis. 

God willing, this pandemic of Covid-19 will be over. But what about the pandemic of misinformation? If it has ever seen its peak in human history, it is now. Will it ever decline? We do not want to give any assertive reply and add more to the misinformation industry. Let’s hope it does.

Even before both had got out of hand, the WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebryesus said in a statement, “We are not just fighting a epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic”. 

As we just typed the word “infodemic”, our Microsoft Word’s latest edition is showing a red line to mark it as a misspelled word. It does not yet know, like many, that the latest edition of Oxford Dictionary of New Words has taken it on. What an impact this infodemic has had!

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