The worldwide panic over the spread of coronavirus is of an unprecedented magnitude, made possible by the proliferation of social media and “fake news”, as well as by a mass media that contributes to the dissemination of news in alarmist and sensationalist ways, often in order to increase profits. Such phenomena throw into relief the need for a different approach to receiving news and, specifically, the need for news recipients to learn how to sort fact from fiction and expose false or misleading information.
The international community, through organisations such as the UN and its subsidiary bodies, should take action towards two main ends. One is to confront false news which has become a powerful and dangerous weapon in political conflicts and propaganda wars, because of the falsehoods and misinformation it spreads and also because of the acrimony and antagonisms it builds. The second is to promote the advancement of media literacy. Recent events, such as the hysteria surrounding coronavirus, have shown how crucial it is to develop people’s ability to read the news critically, to identify sources and their possible agendas, and to ascertain the credibility of the facts.
This is not to suggest that precautionary action on the part health and other concerned authorities should be de-prioritised. However, there should be no doubt about the urgency of the question of media literacy. A recent study in the US revealed that schools do not equip students with the basic skills needed to discern the quality of the information they receive over the internet or to create and share content in a responsible way. According to the US Media Literacy Report 2020, only 14 states have taken legislative action to address the need for media literacy education in schools.
The coronavirus crisis has also shown that the detrimental effects of the mass media do not discriminate between developed and underdeveloped societies. Audience reactions to the news have been pretty much the same everywhere. Wherever you look, you find fear, panic and uncertainty due to the dissemination of inaccuracies and exaggerations, perhaps deliberately in order to accomplish certain ends.
Mankind desperately needs a worldwide awareness-raising campaign on the problem of the lack of media literacy and ways to address it. Certainly, too, social media platforms, journalists, citizen fact-checkers and others have a role to play in stemming the flow of false news and information. This is a collective responsibility of the international community, governments, media establishments and civil society organisations. Large portions of world public opinion believe that misleading information is one of the greatest threats to social cohesion. However, experts believe that while ordinary people have a role to play, the process of reform should be led by the media, the IT industry and governments, again underscoring the importance of collective responsibility.
The most serious epidemic the world faces today has sounded an alarm about many problems. Not least is the problem of how to deliver and receive bad news in ways that do not make critical situations worse. Obviously this does not imply that we should ban bad news. A lack of information could also aggravate crises. But clearly there is a need for an extraordinary effort at several levels to rationalise the treatment of bad news so as to avert unnecessarily violent shocks to societies and to promote more constructive responses to public health crises such as contagious diseases.
One lesson to be learned as we watch the coronavirus drama unfold is that political disputes and agendas can often hide behind a global health crisis. Perhaps this would be a good place to begin our re-examination of how we consume news.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly