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The ‘Infodemic’ In This Pandemic: How Misinformation Worsened Covid-19

September 29, 2020

(Surabhi Malik, Internews’ Program Director for Google News Initiative Training Network In India, was part of a Facebook live event – “Misinformation and the Pandemic Grapevine.”)

By Simran Pavecha 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

Among a plethora of social shortcomings exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, that of misinformation and fake news was a rather grand one. While the phenomenon of misinformation is not new to Indian society, its strong presence on social media platforms, including our WhatsApp groups, is what made it a rather harmful “infodemic.” From news pieces on unverified COVID-19 cures to more gruesome villainization of entire communities to doctored videos about the front-line workers, the past few months have seen the Indian wavelengths rife with all forms of misinformation.

In this light, Youth Ki Awaaz, as a part of UN75 and the Verified initiative to combat COVID-19 misinformation, in collaboration with the United Nations in India, hosted a Facebook live on “Misinformation and the Pandemic Grapevine.” The session aimed to discuss the importance of accurate information to help save lives and the range of ways that can be deployed to tackle the growth of misinformation. The entire event can be found here.

Jaskirat Singh Bawa; Head, Webqoof, The Quint’s IFCN-Certified Fact-Checking Initiative

Building from his experience as a part of a certified fact-checking network, Jaskirat began with elaborating the edge that fake news has over verified information. He mentioned that since misinformation is circulated through WhatsApp messages or social media posts, most of which are textual in structure, it is easier to spread it around.

On the other hand, fact-checking efforts, which essentially rely on the credibility of their web portals, come with links and elaborate explanations. This, according to Jaskirat, is immediately off-putting. Moreover, he also explained how the “confirmation bias” makes it easier for people to ignore information that doesn’t sit well with their existing beliefs, worsens the situation.

As a result of this two-pronged problem, the world has shifted to a “post-fact” society, where, as Jaskirat put it, “a lie travels halfway across the world before the truth even puts its boots on.”

While talking about his experience in solving the issue of misinformation, he stressed on the importance of making the harmful impact of fake news more visible. He mentioned that when people, who find it easy to forward misinformation, are made to interact with the consequences of similar pieces of fake news, like deaths or lynchings, they were more likely to curb their behaviour.

Along with this form of individual effort, Jaskirat also mentioned the responsibility of today’s information moguls and social media companies. Given the fact that these platforms are the breeding grounds for most pieces of misinformation, he propounded, they must put in more resources to curb the infodemic.

Surabhi Malik, Internews’ Program Director, Google News Initiative Training Network In India

As part of an international NGO that works to fight the problem of misinformation, Surabhi expanded further on the role that consumer responsibility played in disseminating fake news. She mentioned that a lack of care towards “information hygiene,” combined with a lack of gatekeeping that comes with social media, has exacerbated misinformation.

Moreover, she also argued that a lack of media literacy among the masses further worsens the situation. Absence of knowledge around healthy news consumption, problems of over-reliance on social media, and lack of initiatives to explain the importance of fact-checking were reasons behind an en masse adoption of misinformation.

Surabhi’s analysis of solving the problem of misinformation emerged from a dual approach of patience and collaboration. She stressed that to begin with, one’s own family could be a good first step in the fight against misinformation. In this context, she argued that there is a need for the youth to understand that their elders were never given any form of internet education.

In such a scenario, their exposure to the well-connected world made it extremely easy for them to follow the urge to broadcast their beliefs. As a result, she explained how there was a need for a patient conversation about the need and benefits of fact-checking a piece of information before sharing.

Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Fortis Healthcare

Advancing Jaskirat’s initial insights into the confirmation bias, Kamna was able to link its existence with the algorithms that social media platforms work on. Since these domains are created to meet our interests, she pointed out how we isolate ourselves from contradictory viewpoints. This constant barrage of like-minded information, combined with the fear of interacting with opposing ideas, and the failure of our education system to teach critical thinking, necessarily, reduce our ability to trust others.

As a result, she explained how “we had been thrust in an online space, continually looking for information, and not processing any of it critically.” Building on the psychological concept of “cognitive laziness,” she also elaborated on the lack of interest that people feel towards putting in the extra effort to fact check information, thus contributing to the infodemic.

She stated a list of five questions that she felt were important to ask before sharing any information. These questions, which, essentially, probed the source, the content, and the impact of the news items, helped individuals assess whether the items were worth sharing. She stressed that since social media’s existence is permanent in the modern world, it is also a partial responsibility of individual consumers to ensure factual dissemination of information.

Dr Sparsh Kumar, Doctor

Dr Sparsh helped recalibrate the discussion back to the impact of misinformation on doctors and front line workers, especially during the pandemic. Elaborating on his own experience, he mentioned that the phenomenon of fake news had been an emerging trend for medical workers for a long time now.

According to Sparsh, the difference emerges when the lives at stake are not just individuals, but entire communities. For example, in the case of migrant workers, who had to get medically-authorized certificates before being allowed to travel, fake news became a part of a systemic problem by further confusing them about the appropriate procedures involved. Similarly, misinformation also led to many doctors and healthcare workers being asked to vacate their apartments, which was, again, something he had noticed with his colleagues.

Discussing his experience as a Youtuber, Sparsh also mentioned that one of the most encouraging aspects of his time was his video on misinformation became the most liked one on his channel soon after its release.

He mentioned how, with the support of some media folks, he could use his expertise as a doctor to dispel accurate information during the pandemic. Sparsh’s transition from a doctor to a Youtuber also underlined the fundamental importance that social media platforms carried with them, acting as a connective force between the masses.

Zafrin Chowdhary, Chief Of Communication, Advocacy And Partnerships, UNICEF India

 

Tying up everyone’s open threads together, Zafrin’s experience of working with governmental bodies throughout the pandemic provided a solution-based lens to the entire discussion. She stressed the importance of social harmony and cohesion, highlighting that misinformation contributed to the dismantling of the said harmony effectively.

Broadcasting the two avenues for fighting the pandemic, “Science and Solidarity,” she also mentioned the anti-stigma efforts that UNICEF rolled out in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoHSW).

Additionally, Zafrin also underlined the strategic interventions planned between UNICEF, the MoHSW, and 13 other UN agencies. Reiterating the four pillars of advocacy, capacity building, community engagement, and media engagement, she mentioned how there had been multifaceted attempts to reach different groups of people, including, but not limited to, people infected of COVID-19, migrant workers, people travelling during the pandemic, first responders, and front-line workers.

Similarly, using campaigns like “Take Care Before You Share,” that encouraged the youth to take up fact-checking practices, and collaborating with both mainstream and regional influencers, enabled them to reinforce important messages to the farthest corners of the country.

The one-hour long conversation succeeded in covering a range of topics, like causes of misinformation, enablers behind its dissemination, means to curb its popularity and practical interventions that can be taken up by the society. One of the overarching themes that emerged from the discussion was the need for a collaborative approach while moving forward, leaving no one behind, and achieving a mutually supportive society that learns off and improves each other.

(Banner image by TazaaKhabar/CC)