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The Problem of Misinformation and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Chibuike studied Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Nigeria. He is interested in society, news, politics and history.

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What started without much ado in Wuhan late last year transmogrified in exponential style into the global monster terrorizing the world today, seizing the streets and keeping us in our homes, literally restricting our freedom of movement (unfortunately, you can't sue this monster to court on human rights violation grounds. Defy its overbearing control and you risk losing an even more fundamental right, "your right to life"). Of course it's wiser to lose the lesser of two evils if you must lose one. It's crazy! And no, it's not in any semblance of those enormous monsters we see in sci-fi movies, it's an organism that can't be detected with the naked eye. Literarily inconspicuous, but deadly. Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm talking about the Novel Coronavirus aka COVID-19.

Frankly speaking, this phenomenon is an existential threat to humankind if not properly contained soon. This single fact makes it not only just "media-worthy", but as well, the most important issue the media has to cover. People have to know what exactly this virus is, what it's up to, decisions taken by relevant authorities to contain its reign of terror, and what we as individuals and as communities must do to arm ourselves against this virus.

Never have we seen the mainstream media on its toes as it is now. People need to be in the know of present and recent happenings. More people are keen at looking out for the next headline on CNN, Aljazera and BBC News than ever before. The mainstream media (more emphasis on broadcast media) seems to be enjoying much more patronage these days.
Because of the recent global occurences, many individuals have given more consideration to the mainstream press than expected. Also, there are those that have begun to focus on this source again in the wake of having overlooked it for such a long time. All things considered, it is not necessarily the case that what is happening has profited each standard news source as there have been various media branches that have as of late needed to close down due to economic constraints.

The hike in mainstream media consumption doesn't in any way imply that social media and other alternative media sources lost traction. Social media usage and engagement has been as usual. Both variations of the media have in no small way engaged us, creating awareness and providing close updates on issues surrounding the pandemic. Save that the variance between the two media forms borders on the nature of information conceptualization, arrangement and dissemination. The mainstream media is usually perceived to be "trusted". Reasons are, this media category is often characterized by communication experts, certified journalists, reporters, trained newscasters, e.t.c. Majority of the population trust whatever information they are fed with by these outlets. On the other hand, the social media gives everyone a platform to ingeniously 'create' their own news.

The social media is a big game changer in the information world today and especially with regards to this pandemic. This is because social media was not available (at least with this rate of influence if it was) in past outbreaks and the dynamics it exuded in the mid 2000s closely followed by its rapid boom in the 2010s completely revolutionized our accessibility and consumption of information. Information now lies on our fingertips and virtually everyone who owns a phone or knows someone who owns a phone, is not starved of information. The dawning realization that social media hasn't only just come to stay, but has come to change the status quo was so overwhelming that mainstream media bodies now operate online pages on the various social media platforms.

Dr Peter Coe, a Barrister and Lecturer in Law at the University of Reading noted that mainstream media and social media maintain a symbiotic relationship. In the sense that "Social media provides a rich source of news for some mainstream news media outlets that need to fill 24-hour rolling news with new content. Consequently, true information, fake news and misinformation, or just irresponsible publications published on social media is often ‘recycled’ by some mainstream media. In turn, in the case of fake news, misinformation and irresponsible publications, the fact that ‘trusted’ mainstream media have published it serves to justify and support this information, creating a self-fulfilling cycle".

The "Fake News" Problem

One of the subtle disadvantages of a society gearing towards postmodernism, where anyone can say or do anything...is outright abuse and chaos. I think with great freedom in any sense of it, great responsibility is also expected. Mark Twain as far back as the early 20th century said that "If you don't read the newspaper you're uninformed, if you do, you are misinformed.
Misinformation is the order of the day. Some levels to it are subtle. A lot of times, the general public is served what I'll term as surface information. For some big interests, there's a lot to the story we don't get to hear. That notwithstanding, we're faced with a debacle that requires the entire population's 100% careful involvement to survive. The importance of right information especially with respect to this existential threat cannot be over-emphasized. The mess the world is submerged in now, if properly analysed, youll see the root cause of our failure to successfully contain it ab initio can be traced down to information problems. Fake news everywhere! Although the social media may seem to be the bigger culprit on this end, the mainstream media isn't without its own faults. And by "faults", I'm talking about severe lapses that contributed in sending hundreds of thousands of people to their early graves.

Here in Nigeria, at the inception, a barrage of WhatsApp messages and voice notes sent by random amateur individuals giving false 'COVID-19 related medical advice went viral. These were later debunked by medical experts. I'm pretty sure this rave went on in other countries too.

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter respectively have aired their concerns on the misleading news trends on their platforms. Both companies have marshalled out measures to curb the nuisance (still a work in progress), but the inherent impediment here lies in the fact that fake news spreads faster than the platforms can fight it. It is estimated that for every expert opinion, there exists thousands of rumuors and misleading information".

False information begets bad decision making. We are only as sophisticated as the information we have. In our bid to experiment all manner of purpurted medical advice we see on the internet, anything and everything could go wrong.

Trump's Slip Up


Leaders are burdened with the moral obligation of maintaining a near perfect decorum in their words, actions and policies. This is simply because their conduct wields a great deal of influence on ordinary people.

I doubt Donald Trump, the POTUS took this into consideration when he publicly expressed his thoughts that exposing the bodies of patients to UV Light and bleach injection could help treat the Coronavirus.

I hope no one tried it though.

Trump has been in the spotlight on Coronavirus issues for all the wrong reasons. America's devastating death toll and rising number of cases in millions has been linked to his downplaying of the severity of the virus at the inception. A narrative FOX News helped him advance. The President went as far as labeling the situation a Democrat political gimmick to deface his government. Probably if he took COVID-19 serious early enough, a lot of death cases would have been averted.

What About 'Herd Immunity'?

A term often misinterpreted to mean a direct attempt to expose or infect people with the virus. This is not the case. Herd Immunity is actually more of a side effect.

As CNN reported, Michael Mina, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health had this to say about the subject in question in an interview with Public Radio International's "The World":

"Herd Immunity is reached when the majority of a given population i.e 70 to 90% becomes immune to an infectious disease, either because they have become infected and recovered, or through vaccination. When that happens, the disease is less likely to spread to people who aren't immune because there just aren't enough infectious carriers to reach them".
No community has yet achieved this and a vaccine, "which will get us to herd immunity quicker", he added.

The UK and Sweden are considered to be the fore-front proponents of this strategy. Sweden in particular is imposing light restrictions on her population. CNN identified that the country has not enforced strict lockdown measures and most restaurants, bars and stores have remained open.

The Problem of Self Medication

Frankly speaking, over here in Nigeria and many other African Nations, Self Medication is a norm. This is greatly as a result of people's inability to afford proper medical healthcare. A typical Nigerian upon having his body alerted by a headache, takes a walk to the nearest drugstore (usually operated by not so qualified "pharmacists"), presents some change and literally orders for a drug he can afford (you got that right. I actually meant the patient "orders" this drug for himself under no one's prescription. This happens most of the time). Yesterday, I saw one of Trevor Noah's Daily Show episodes, where he talked about the American people expressing their disheartenment on Trump taking chloroquine without a doctor's prescription. Probably due to better standard of living in the West, Self-medication is discouraged. And as a matter of fact, it should be discouraged everywhere.

Well, in the heat of a global pandemic characterized by mass hysteria in ridiculous levels, what action do you expect from a clueless unsuspecting gullible person who just saw a 5 step coronavirus prevention procedure from an unverified source on Facebook? Nobody wants to be next addition to the scaring statistics. Definitely, their doctor would be the last person they'll notify before the deed is done. Self-Medication has been known to compound already existing medical conditions. The best bet is to take the advice of an expert. Speaking for doctors, a popular meme would say, "don't confuse your Google search with my medical degree".

Panics and Scares

About a month ago, give or take a few weeks, the grossly misleading notion that 5G was the cause of coronavirus was all over the place. It sparked protests in many countries and on social media too. Popular Nigerian Pastor Chris Oyakhilome bought into the incessant spread of this idea too. With lots of people across the globe subscribing to this ruse, the theory garnered some traction. In some Western countries, mobs brought down 5G masts, especially the ones close to their homes. Surprisingly what was supposed to be a harmless tech upgrade became a reason for worldwide fright. This scare was in fact blown out of proportion possibly by plain ignoramuses, half baked science "geeks", or pure conspiracy theorists.

Another wide panic inspired by this pandemic was the Toilet Roll and Hand Sanitizer panic. Toilet paper companies made huge bucks with little advertisment, thanks to this hysteria. Demand for tissue paper was on an all time high. Who would have thought that a not so revered commodity often relegated to the ignoble job of ass wiping after a ritual of bowel brown-mass expulsion would be one day regarded as the one-single item you need to ensure your safety amidst a respiratory-viral ravaging pandemic. Of course, the Toilet Roll is essential to this end, albeit I doubt its necessity called for such craze.

Numerous conspiracies have been linked to vaccines, and there's good reason why. Some antecedents are disturbing. No one wants to be a lab rat for another Tuskegee experiment. Once bitten, twice shy. Sheer racism, elite interests, or just plain wickedness have inspired dehumanizing projects in the guise of philanthropy and public safety concerns. This is not to eliminate the possibility of harmless vaccines, but bad history on delicate matters like this can kill public trust, and that's eventually what is playing out right now.

Humans are more likely to do what other humans are doing. That's how we're wired. People's social media posts as well affect other people's behavior and decisions. Panic buying, protests against social distancing and lockdown measures (Elon Musk's recent Tweets is a good example of the latter, especially considering the fact that he draws much followership). Bottomline: Both media have their fair share of input in the stir and control of these scares.

Fear Tactics


Amidst the pandemic confusion, some skeptics have felt a need to pause and investigate the contagious anxiety it attracts. Is it really called for? Is this a sort of media exaggeration or the government's strategy to keep us indoors? Or even more sinister; probably a conspiracy to deprive us of physical human connection. Should we be this scared? Does the media "hype" match the severity of this thing? I can't seem to see any News TV channel talking about anything else but coronavirus!


Khudejah Ali, a fake news and disease communication researcher, according to time.com has studied how public health officials can design health-risk messages during outbreaks. She found that “a moderate level of fear-arousing sensationalism” in such messages could increase user engagement. Over email, she says that when such messages are combined with useful information that helps people protect themselves or diagnose symptoms, the combination can “become a powerful and actionable health communication message, and result in wide sharing and engagement across populations.”

Jeff Hancock, according to the same site, explains that "in the midst of a public health crisis, it’s not necessarily a problem for people to be nervous, so long as that anxiety motivates them to prepare and stay safe, and they don’t cross into a full-blown panic. “Oftentimes we think anxiety is a bad thing, but sometimes it’s an appropriate response,” he says. “It means people are paying more attention.”

So you see, the fear may be for our own good.

The 'Scam' Problem

We live in a world replete of opportunists. Taking advantage of a social problem by creating a solution is laudable. That's technically what enterpreneurs do. But that's not the case here.

According to Forbes, Google says it is stopping up to 18 million malware and phishing emails related to COVID-19 from reaching Gmail users every day.

Some malicious quizzes circulating on social media that claim to test one's awareness of the pandemic have been identified as defrauding tools used by scammers to lure unsuspecting victims into giving out personal information, providing the scammers access to their online financial transactions. Through this medium, a lot of people's Bank accounts have been hacked.

In Nigeria, some fake sites are in circulation, claiming to be a registeration portal for some non-existent government pandemic stimulus. Multitudes have been scammed after giving out their account details on such fraudulent sites.

The era calls for carefulness. You need not be advised twice.

A Simple Advice

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described this phenomenon as a pandemic of information, another pandemic he averred is simultaneously in motion alongside the coronavirus. What in other words could be termed an "Infodemic"

There's a truckload of disinformation in circulation. The hazards that come along with it are inexhaustible. When it comes to health issues of any kind, seek expert advice. It can't get any simpler than that.

© 2020 Atasie Chibuike Augustine

Comments

Madiha Ajaz from Karachi, Pakistan on June 07, 2020:

Absolutely, massive panic with the involvement of rumors make the situation worst day by day.

Ezeobi Tochukwu Charles on May 23, 2020:

Transmission and acceptance of fake or incomplete news during these times comes when people who don't know what to trust anymore choose to trust whatever they see. The forebearers, medical bodies (like WHO), government agencies should be blamed on this, but sadly blame doesn't solve issues.

Ezeobi Tochukwu Charles on May 23, 2020:

Awesome

Blessing on May 22, 2020:

Keep it up babep