“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
– Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organizations’
Infodemics are an excessive amount of information about a problem, making it difficult to identify the best solution in tackling that problem. Misinformation, disinformation, and rumors during a health emergency like this are hampering an effective public health response system and resulting in the creation of confusion, havoc, and thus, distrust among people.
As the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 spreads all over the world, so do all kinds of rumors and myths about it. Confirmed cases of coronavirus disease have crossed 85K in India and 4.56M worldwide (as of 16th May 2020).ii Coronavirus is spreading but so are the rumors and conspiracy theories around it.
Fake news is spreading faster than the virus itself
Starting from the misinformation and rumors about the origin of the coronavirus, strained relations between China and the U.S., to hoaxes about the cures of the disease, like the virus would not be able to survive in the hot weather, taking a considerable high dose of chloroquine medication can protect people, consuming large quantities of ginger and garlic can prevent people from getting infected and inhaling hot air from a hairdryer can help cure the coronavirus.
Also, fake news like, cities will go to complete shutdowns and people would not be able to make arrangements even for their necessities are some examples of fake news spreading faster and more easily than the virus itself. Therefore, getting true and accurate information about the disease has become ever more important.
Need for protection of our ‘WARRIORS’ – The medical teams and healthcare workers
Misinformation on social media about inefficient and inhuman quarantine centers, lab testings, and hospital facilities available to the COVID-19 infected patients has resulted in cases of provoked mobs attacking the medical teams. The apex court termed doctors, nurses and healthcare workers as ‘warriors’ in the fight against this pandemic and stated that they need to be protected.
The Supreme Court made this observation while hearing petitions concerning protective gear for doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers amid the outbreak of COVID-19. Acknowledging the commitments and contributions of the healthcare workers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also extended his gratefulness to them during his speech addressing the nation and has also given them a special mention in his tweets.
Coronavirus and Communal virus
A wave of fake news has been circulating on social media accusing Muslims of disobeying the 14 days isolation guideline and lockdown orders seeking to spread the virus and also accused them of being ‘ANTI NATIONALISTS’ who did this just to defy the government. All of this majorly started when several coronavirus cases were detected during a rally for the Muslim missionary – ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ held in the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque in New Delhi between March 13 and March 15. iii The already subsisting reckless ‘Islamophobia’ in our country gave rise to a large amount of fake information about the coronavirus updates, most of them being
shared in nationalist media outlets, sparking the real violence and aggression towards the Muslim
Hashtags like #CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots and #BanJahilJamat appeared on Twitter and
Instagram, accompanied by photos and videos to show Muslims in the act of spreading the virus.
One of the first videos that got viral on social media in late March was showing a group of Muslims licking plates and utensils in an attempt to spread COVID-19. But later on, when the content got checked and investigated by the authorities, the real story behind that video was found out. It showed members of a religious denomination of Shia Muslims practicing one of their symbolic traditions which involve licking utensils to avoid any food waste and the video was from 2018 or possibly even earlier.
The matter was thus made worse by news channels and social media disseminating other fake content like this resulting in the fanning of anti-Muslim sentiment and declaring them to be involved in the act of ‘terrorism’ by spreading the virus in the country.
Social media platforms are also fighting against Coronavirus Infodemic
The social media platforms reserve the right to take down inappropriate and false information shared by the users. They are also taking many steps for stopping misinformation from going viral in public posts. But even then, in personal chats and private groups with hundreds of members, fake news is a commodity that still appears to be in great demand in the market of misinformed people.
WhatsApp, having more than 200 million users in our country (WhatsApp’s largest market) has even told the Indian government that it needs support from law enforcement and civil society to fight fake news and misinformation. In 2018, WhatsApp added a tiny “forwarded” the label on all forwarded messages to control the spread of misinformation and added a limit to the number of people you could forward the messages to, but misinformation continues to lead to violence and deaths in our country, especially during situations like this.
The government is found to be exploring all possible tech solutions to deal with the pandemic. The central government has launched a WhatsApp helpline number for coronavirus queries where anyone can simply drop a message and the chatbot will then send an automated response listing the FAQs. It has also partnered with Google India to remove fake news on Google’s search engine. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have also partnered with WHO to regulate their online content.
Controversial AAROGYA SETU App
Aarogya Setu, which means “bridge to health” in Sanskrit was the application developed by National Informatics Center (NIC) to keep track of the coronavirus cases in India. It tells how many people are infected in the near locality through its feature of contact tracking. It uses Bluetooth and GPS and alert the app user when anyone comes in contact with the COVID-19 positive patient.
It is also a great step taken by the government and IT experts to provide people with the correct information and preventing the spread of rumors and myths about the virus. The app shows trending posts and videos highlighting true content and the actual number of cases in the country. It also lists FAQs about the symptoms and precautions to be taken for prevention. However, it has become controversial over time because of its storage of location data and a requirement of constant access to the smartphone’s Bluetooth which, according to experts, is an interference by the government in personal information of the app users, thus, proving it to be an inefficient software from security and privacy viewpoint.
Self -protection against Fake news
Fake news would not be so prevalent if there was not already a receptive and willing audience that caters to pre-established opinions and biases. Along with the question of who or what is responsible for the rumors and misinformation, one should also hold himself responsible for not taking enough care to find the facts. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus worldwide has spawned countless rumors and hoaxes about false cures, causing panic amid uncertainty. The only way we can prevent ourselves from falling for the false information and passing on the rumors is by taking the time to verify the information we receive. This can be done by checking how recently an account has been created and information has been shared, keeping a close eye
on information from our local authorities, or searching keywords to find that information on any other source.