Covid-19 has not only changed the normal life we used to lead, at least for the coming medium-run. It has also ushered in a new “sad truth”: the unprecedented spread of fake news and false information around the clock, on social media in particular. People tend to believe and unfortunately “trust” information shared without due verification. Though the reliability of most stories circulated on social media since the outbreak of coronavirus could be questioned on the spot, resharing such stories thousands and even millions of times has shown a tendency worthy of deep study.
Rumours are usually connected with big events and incidents. Their cycle of life is based on people’s “instinct” to know “private” details about a specific incident, a celebrity, or people in office, among others. Rumour is a skilled blend of true and false, aimed at influencing people’s orientation towards a given subject. A study titled “Analysing How People Orient to and Spread Rumours in Social Media,” released by the University of Warwick, England, argues that, “the spread of misinformation is especially important in the context of breaking news… These rumours then spread to large numbers of users, influencing perceptions and understandings of events, despite being unverified.”
That is why we all heard, at the early days of Covid-19, of “ridiculous” causes of the coronavirus, such as 5G broadband and so-called ultra-lethal electrical waves generated from 5G phone masts. Without scrutinising or even running a simple fact check, a handsome number of people around the world trusted the rumour, ignoring a very simple truth that coronavirus has hit nations that do not even have 3G broadband! Regardless, and as a result, 5G towers were destroyed in several European countries, including the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, as people in every part of the globe were earnestly awaiting news on the production of a Covid-19 vaccine, another rumour was widely circulated, this time a miserable one, and spread on a larger scale. It claimed that Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, was working on implanting a microchip into the bodies of those who would supposedly take the new vaccine in the future. This is in order to track people and get their personal information, as part of a dark conspiracy theory about the extinction of the human race. Some have mixed Hollywood science fiction movies, where an imaginary all-knowing intelligence service can track people down at whim, with present reality.
In the early days of the spread of the contagion, premature conclusions of scientific studies gained trust among many from the natural instinct to believe in whatever one hears just to overcome one’s fear. Now, it appears that almost everything people thought at first was incorrect. At the peak of the panic, people were told the infection might be transmitted through touching surfaces laden with droplets left by an infected person. This may be true within a “healthcare setting”, such as in hospitals, where confirmed cases receive treatment. Instead of limiting the sterilisation process to such places, however, governments were misled into sterilising “streets and public buildings” in a massive resources waste. At last, the measure was considered ineffective and useless, or quoting US President Trump, a “hoax”.
Misinformation has not been the only phenomenon connected with the Covid-19 pandemic. “Negativity” has been given its share as well. From a looming Doomsday to “imaginary creatures” jumping over buildings, people were caught in the middle to the extent some have already performed their last prayers. Strict precautionary measures are not synonymous with readiness for one’s last day on earth. At the end, they are meant to make sure that everyone is safe and doing what they should under the circumstances to avoid being infected.
Who stands behind this “panic” campaign associated with coronavirus? Unfortunately, many news outlets and prestigious scientific research institutes have fallen into the trap, maybe not on purpose. Giving the public “inaccurate” information and rushing to “unsubstantiated” conclusions have greatly led people in the wrong direction. The recipients of such information, however, are to blame for their “blind” belief without verifying that volume of erroneous statements, or at least for not getting information from a fact-based source.
Many people, including those working in the media, never bat an eye while sharing fantastical stories on their Facebook walls. Indeed, they desperately defend them, even in the case of open correction. In turn, they mislead their “followers” who tend to believe that those stories are authentic and simply re-share them to friends and families, acting just like the coronavirus does: multiplying in massive numbers to better attack the enemy (in this case, verifiable truth; in the case of the virus, healthy cells). Instead of acting as a safeguard to the body against infection, the “system” is set on a “self-destruction” mode.
Misinformation and hoax-driven stories harm communities beyond the coronavirus or any other pandemic. They have no cure once “installed” in people’s “systems”. They are the very cause of a phenomenon that we still suffer from: extremism. Misinformed people have blown up themselves, thinking they have done that for a “noble” cause. Hence, there is an urgent need, more than ever, to “filter” the content people receive on social media, not by means of censorship, but rather by introducing tools that can help people know fake from authentic. Recently, some social media platforms have started to enforce the technique, helping people greatly in that regard.
Still, a well-informed community remains the best safeguard against the rapid spread of fake stories. Raising awareness is more a matter of delivering “factual information” on time, rather than sheer “propaganda”. It entails providing “correct information” once a given incident takes place, leaving no room for speculation, and being the only way to “disinfect” a fake, contaminated story.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly