The rapid pace of the spread of COVID-19 across the world and the huge number of deaths has made governments across the world resort to unprecedented measures to enforce social distancing, restrictions on mobility, cancellation of events, prohibiting mass gatherings and sealing of national borders. India, has in fact become the world’s first liberal democracy to announce a nationwide ban on mobility on people and goods barring for those involved in essential and key government services.
Much before the declaration of COVID-19 a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), however, social media around the world had exploded with misinformation about the source of the disease, the cause of its rapid spread, its symptoms and possible cures. Since 31 December 2019, after China reported a cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology detected in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province, fake news has proliferated around the world with as much velocity as the virus itself, with WHO experts aptly naming it an ‘infodemic.’
Some prominent themes making up the misinformation spectrum include: (1) misattributing the nature of transmission of the disease; (2) xenophobic declamations against Chinese eating habits; (3) inaccurate descriptions of COVID-19 symptoms; (4) misleading information on governmental interventions, lockdowns and preventive measures;and (5) reports extolling the virtues of unverified cures. Social media rumours are detrimental to human well-being, and forwarded messages on WhatsApp about contracting COVID-19 from chicken, for example, have wreaked economic damage to the domestic poultry industry.
Similarly, proactive moves initiated by health communication experts have been undercut by intermittent salvos of misinformation issued by political establishment entities. US President Trump has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as ‘Chinese virus,’ that political commentators have interpreted as an act of subterfuge to divert attention away from the mounting health crisis due to delayed administrative action by deliberately stigmatising certain ethnic groups in the process. In India, a member of the state legislative assembly of Assam claimed on national television that bovine excrements can be used to ‘purify’ the air and are an effective cure for not just COVID-19, but also different forms of cancer. In a similar vein, a government ministry published a medically inconsistent advisory on using arsenicum-30 as a prophylactic against COVID-19. With politicians and religious godmen speaking the same language, the rumour mills have been kept busy churning out tonnes of misinformation flooding social media.
On 7 March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly urged citizens not to believe in rumours, and seek medical help in case of symptoms, with the onset of the virus imminent in India. Pre-call awareness messages featuring a dry rasping cough followed by a health advisory, and pop-up banners on YouTube and Facebook directing users to the WHO website for information on COVID-19, began appearing in early March. State governments too have taken a hawkish stance on fake news. Maharashtra has deployed a cyber crime team to monitor social media. Kerala, Telangana and Rajasthan have quickly moved to arrest users spreading malicious information. The government of India is also soon launching an app, ‘CoWin-20’, currently being tested on both iOS and Android to help users check if they have been in close contact with people infected with the virus. Such post-hoc measures could prove to be an effective deterrent for some miscreants. But the sheer abundance of information that blurs the line between fact and fiction reflects the complexity of monitoring misinformation from a regulatory standpoint.
In that sense, it is pertinent to analyse the snowballing and propensity of misinformation that circulates during a crisis against ordinary circumstances. Generally, ‘crisis communication’ studies have looked at fake news from the point of view of information manipulation by third-parties in the run-up to a political event or the fall-out of a natural disaster. However, the collective effort of public health organisations across the world to combat misinformation on COVID-19 brings to light the susceptibility of people to believing and sharing unverified and inaccurate information outside the political sphere.
Research on communication trends during previous epidemics such as Zika, for example, reveals how fake news comprised a disproportionate share of information being circulated on social media. During times of public health emergencies, communication networks are taxed to the limit given the surge in demand for information. Science communicators, health professionals, and medical organisations have long advocated using social media to engage audiences beyond mass information dissemination. This sustained engagement guarantees credibility to the source of information, and users are more likely to seek accurate information from such sources during emergencies. Monitoring communication flows on closed social media groups, however, remains a far greater challenge. Decentralised and encrypted messaging ensures that only members with admin privileges have full control over information circulating on the group.
Further, as pointed out by Lotus Ruan of the Citizen Lab, a think-tank based at the University of Toronto, the biggest challenge of moderating misinformation is deciding who should be in charge of moderation-platforms, self-regulating bodies or government authorities, and deciding the standards of transparency and accountability. According to a report released earlier this month by Citizen Lab, social media platforms like We-Chat are prone to be over-cautious and actively self-censor content before being directed to do so by state authorities. In this case, it is clear that self-censorship restricted the timely dissemination of accurate information that could have potentially saved many lives.
Messages warning about the contagion of a mysterious ‘SARS-like’ disease first appeared on Chinese app WeChat weeks before the official announcement by Chinese authorities on 31 December. However, certain keywords were immediately censored by the platform. The news was suppressed because it was thought to be fake. Just a day before Coronavirus was officially reported to the WHO, Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who broke the news on a WeChat group of his colleagues was forced to declare by Wuhan police that he had communicated a false information. Dr. Wenliang died on 7 February 2020 after contracting the disease himself. His death raises questions about the human costs of self-censorship, and the connection between the control of information and the spread of a disease.
The use of sophisticated filtering technology to block content by authoritarian regimes to manage public opinion can lead to censorship of neutral and factual information, that prevents the public’s capacity to stay informed and safe during moments of crisis. There is a relative absence of governmental control on social media content, and the laxity allowed to platforms has been blamed for the recent surge in vigilantism and mob lynchings.
Relying on social media platforms alone to change communication patterns proves to be risky, and the current crisis underlines the need for the government authorities to identify trusted players and influencers within the platform ecosystem to communicate credible and accurate information to the public. This may even imply allying with perceived ideological adversaries such as independent fact checking news organisations who are otherwise pointing out government inconsistencies.
Over the last few months, tech companies, governments and the independent public health organisations have bolstered efforts to fight the wave of misinformation. The WHO joined the popular social media platform TikTok to release a series of credible, yet prosaic, health advisory videos. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has partnered with social media platforms to debunk conspiracy theories, weed out inaccurate information and verify accounts to ensure credible news and updates reach audiences. Similarly, the government of Goa has partnered with technology startups to launch a coronavirus chatbot that gives users basic information, and directs them to the helpline number where they can seek further assistance.
However, such measures may not be sufficient and authorities need to work far more proactively to enlist the support of doctors, scientists, health policy experts, and journalists to build their credibility and influence through the affordability of official communication networks. Efforts of health activists, medical associations and academic councils providing accurate information as well as calling out sources of rumours need to be amplified through official government communication channels.
Beyond censoring information alone, the current crisis highlights the need for proactive regulatory measures that prioritise credible sources and promote data-led real time analytics that will go a long way in stamping out the current infodemic crisis and pave the way to building a larger community of discerning digital audiences.
Suyash Barve is a research intern at ORF in Mumbai.
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