Infodemic: Even more deadly than pandemic

Abraham Lincoln probably foresaw the 21st Century’s post-truth era, which in the future will be synonymous with the Corona Era. He had said, “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.” Today, when millions are fighting the rapid spread of Covid-19 and many thousands have succumbed too, the public’s indispensable need is for a steady diet of the right facts. For that is what will help the citizenry ensure its own safety, not a steady diet of Ramayana TV serials from the pre-Cable TV and pre-Netflix era. Instead, a tremendous amount of misinformation is far too conveniently accessible, but hardly any way to assess the veracity of it all.

Fake news requires no more than a click on the ‘forward’ button on the bottom right corner of WhatsApp, through which a user can send a message to nearly 1,300 people. Whereas on Facebook, a single post can reach as many people as one wants, with just a click. This can take just a millisecond. However, as per Altnews, an acclaimed fact-checking website, the process of debunking fake information is elaborate and requires intricate tasks, such as using image search tools, extensive online research, reaching out to local authorities, referring to primary data and so on. This takes a lot more time than to just click the forward button.

Fake news mushrooms like wild fire also because of ‘sender primacy’, where a person shares a particular information because it is being endorsed by someone they idolise or respect; ‘selective consumption’, wherein people believe incomplete information thinking that it is complete; ‘network effect’, where a piece of news goes viral after it reaches a tipping point; and the ‘post-truth effect’, which has people believe what they see or hear because it matches their political ideology and socialisation.

Social media inboxes, Facebook walls, WhatsApp chats, Twitter pages and a number of other popular and lesser-known sites and apps are flooded with information about the Novel Coronavirus, its origin, cures and prevention. Some are fathoms away from truth or logic, and carry the potential for unimaginable harm to our economic and social health.

A forwarded message congratulating the public for their actions at 5 PM on 22 March by clapping their hands, clanging utensils and ringing bells went viral on the day janata curfew was announced. Attributing the finding to a “NASA SP13 wave detector”, which obviously has no official confirmation whatsoever, it claimed that sounds produced by the clapping and bells emitted “cosmic” sound waves which have led to the virus’s retreat in India. The message thus proclaimed India’s victory over the virus.

This misleading message is part of an ocean of other nonsensical information floated through the social media channels to induce excessive and misplaced confidence among the public. Such claims can encourage people to take the pandemic and ‘social distancing’ norms casually, ignore how serious the situation is and presume, wrongly, that the worst is over. It should therefore not surprise if, very soon after such messages floated up, a major threat to public health arose—people gathered on the streets in a “celebratory” mood.

On the other side of this spectrum are the exaggerated claims doing the rounds about the deadliness of this virus, the effectiveness of home remedies (lemon water to cow dung) and the accuracy of do-it-yourself (DIY) detection tests to figure out infections. All these bogus claims have a big impact on mental and physical health of those who fall prey to them.

Third come the propaganda messages which falsely claim that Hindus are a “proud community” who have never been the source of epidemics. These messages condemn the eating habits of certain cultures and demand they should be ‘banned’. They include messages that put on display outright bigotry: a Kannada TV channel, for instance, falsely claimed that four Muslim youth in Bhatkal had refused Covid-19 testing for religious reasons. This was done to drive home the idea that the youth were irresponsible, and Islam does not encourage scientific testing, therefore creating an impression that their religion is against the public interest.

The truth about fake news is that it operates on existing social differences, stereotypes and fears; while it also creates and promotes the creation of these fears. This is why such news, in these troubled times, is able to crystallise communalism. This is detrimental to the social health of the nation and needs to be countered by all, especially public authorities.

Finally, the impact on the economic health due to the fake news pandemic has been most visible and is more easily quantifiable. Claims that ice cream and cold foods can cause Covid-19 have had a negative impact already. The rumour that it can spread through chickens (and pets) has led to a 60% drop in the demand and the industry has been hit hard. Messages warning to hoard ration, medicines and cash has led to panic buying across the country. This has further led to a shortage of food, and almost everything else.

The spread of a fake news pandemic can land our social and economic health in a vegetative state from where it would be impossible to recuperate—even after the ongoing outbreak comes under control. Although social networking sites are taking steps to remove fake content and providing the right information, the fact is that the speed at which fake news disseminates is astronomically higher than that of debunking it.

The state needs to pull out all its resources and push fake news back. It should spread the right information through radio, TV, PIB and so on. Fact-checker websites should receive more encouragement from all of us, public and private funding for they do vital work. It is probably the right time for the government to revisit its Information Technology Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 and take steps to begin identifying and disabling harmful content and preventing fake news from spreading.

Yet, the most powerful tool in the hands of the citizens is to exercise self-caution and educate themselves, because the fake news pandemic might have deadly consequences, deadlier than the pandemic itself.

First published in Newsclick.
The author is a student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. The views are personal.